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VINTAGE ST. PETE: Michael France and the Beach Theatre

Bill DeYoung

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The Beach Theatre, 315 Corey Ave., has stood vacant since November 2012. Photo by Bill DeYoung

With the news this week that the Beach Theatre had been sold, after nine years shuttered, we thought our readers might like to re-visit this story in the Catalyst’s Vintage St. Pete series, originally published in February. This story will appear in Vintage St. Pete Vol. II: Legends, Locations, Lifestyles, coming this holiday season from St. Petersburg Press.

 

The last movie to flicker on the screen of the Beach Theatre was a by-the-numbers cop drama with the ironic title End of Watch.

It was November, 2012, and Michael France, who’d owned the sturdy cinderblock movie house on St. Pete Beach for five years, was having money troubles. He was also in the middle of a messy divorce. And his health wasn’t so good.

The Beach was in dire need of a new, state-of-the-art digital projection system, better sound, new seats and other things that France could not, at that moment, afford. Attendance was dwindling, too.

So he shut it down, re-arranging the plastic letters on the Corey Avenue marquee to read THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES.

Five months later, France, who suffered from Type 1 diabetes, was dead at age 51. The Beach Theatre remains closed to this day.

Architect M. Winfield Lott’s 1939 design for the Beach Theatre.

Act 1

The 81-year-old theater has no official historical designation, but it’s rich with history.

It was built for $35,000 by Boston financier Stephen S. Girard, who reportedly wrote for director D.W. Griffith back in the 1920s. Girard moved to St. Pete Beach in 1934, and bought four lots in untamed St. Petersburg Beach. Vintage photos show the Beach framed on both sides by Australian pine trees.

Opening night for the Beach was Jan. 15, 1940, with a weeper called Dust Be My Destiny, starring John Garfield and Priscilla Lane.

It was the first theater in Pinellas built explicitly for sound pictures (earlier movie houses, erected in the silent era, had to be re-fitted), and it was air conditioned, something new (and welcomed) at that time. The theater contained 628 white leather seats.

During World War II, rumored sightings of German U-boats near the Gulf shore ensured nobody, but nobody was going to go to the movies out there (it was confirmed that at least seven ships, coming in or out of Tampa Bay, were successfully torpedoed in 1942 and ’43). Although local organizations held meetings and lectures there during the day, the theater was kept dark after dusk.

In October 1944, movies returned to the Beach. In those days, it operated one or two nights per week, and only during the winter-to-early-summer season. On off nights, music and dance schools used the auditorium for recitals and talent shows.

Act 2

As time passed, and times changed, the Beach Theatre changed owners, and changed management, again and again. Bill and Amy Eisenhardt took the reins in 1974, and played up the nostalgia factor with live organ music, pre-show games and door prizes, newsreels, and a cartoon before every feature. Tickets, popcorn and soda were cheap.

While single screens gave way to twin screens, and twin screens laid down for malls and multiplexes, the Beach remained, independent of any corporate affiliations and proudly showing everything from foreign films to Hollywood classics to movies that were just a little bit left of center – with the occasional blockbuster booking, to keep the crowds thick and the electric bill paid.

It didn’t matter to the Beach’s faithful attendees that the second-run movies tended to be prints that had already been around the country, and were often scratched, with faded colors and awkward splices. They didn’t seem to mind the uncomfortable old seats or the musty smell.

But the Eisenhardts couldn’t make it pay, and by the end of 1976, the Beach was up for sale again.

For a couple of years in the early ‘80s, there were X-rated midnight shows (“normal” movies were screened earlier in the evening – presumably, for a different audience).

Director Carl Reiner shot a brief scene for the comedy Summer Rental, with actors John Larroquette and Karen Austin, in the Beach’s lobby in the spring of 1985. The film – which starred an up-and-coming John Candy – played the theater that fall.

Film Paradiso Inc. paid $289,000 for the Beach Theatre in 1997. Owner Raza Chouls replaced the ancient seats, tore out the threadbare lobby carpet and put in black and white tile, and re-painted the auditorium walls.

By then, Michael France and his wife were already living on Pass-a-Grille.

Ten years later, he bought the theater from Raza Chouls. “It seemed like this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” France told the St. Petersburg Times.

Act 3

The youngest of Michael Sr. and Carol France’s three children, he was born in St. Petersburg but grew up a few counties over in Winter Haven. Still, the family spent long weekends and summer breaks on St. Petersburg Beach, as it was known before 1994, visiting Mike’s grandparents. Because he loved old movies, especially science fiction and action films, the Beach Theatre was one of his favorite places. He also collected comic books and memorabilia.

France was a big fan of the James Bond film franchise, and at 14 produced a Bond “fanzine,” which he wrote, printed up and mailed to a paid subscriber list. He called it Mr. Kiss-Kiss Bang-Bang, after the theme song to Thunderball. “He always wanted to be a writer,” remembers his dad.

After attending the University of Florida, then Columbia University, France went to California. He found a cheap apartment in Venice Beach, and a job as a script-reader for a major Hollywood studio.

Michael France

Carolco Pictures bought his script for Cliffhanger as a vehicle for Sylvester Stallone in 1991. The movie was a smash hit, and flush with money he promptly bought the Pass-a-Grille house, presuming (correctly) he could write from anywhere.

He married his Los Angeles girlfriend, and they began their own Florida family.

Next came his story for the James Bond movie GoldenEye, followed by scripts for a series of Marvel Comics adaptations: Hulk, The Punisher and Fantastic Four.

France brought his parents to limo-and-red-carpet premieres (L.A. for Cliffhanger, London for Goldeneye and New York’s Liberty Island for Fantastic Four).

At age 45, he paid $800,000 for the Beach Theatre.

France with Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee at the Hollywood premiere of “Hulk,” 2003. France family collection.

“It’s going to be fun,” France told Times film writer Steve Persall. “I’m bringing back Friday night midnight shows, working on a summer series of kids’ matinees, some music shows – the works.

“I want to retain the current programming of smaller films and indies, but want to broaden the base a little bit to bring in families early in the day and younger adults later in the night.”

He kept ticket prices low ($7 for adults, plus $5 matinees) and programmed theme nights, theme weeks and promotional gambits, such “1939 Day,” honoring the year the Beach was built by double-billing The Wizard of Oz and The Mark of Zorro for just 25 cents per ticket.

Like the Eisenhardts and Raza Chouls, Mike France bet on the nostalgia factor to maintain money in the till.

The Beach was an “art house,” an old-fashioned single screen theater showing the movies the theater chains, and their multiple screens, just weren’t delivering any more.

There was a real sense of community at the Beach, too, with the regular midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show on weekends, complete with a local troupe of rice-throwing, singing and dancing, outrageously costumed St. Pete performers. France loved it.

Following the St. Pete Beach Christmas parade, every year, there was a free program of cartoons for local children. He laughed as loud as any of them.

The Beach Theatre car in the St. Pete Beach 2009 Christmas parade. Michael (left) with his family. France family collection.

Act 4

Today Mike’s parents, Michael and Carol, live in St. Petersburg Beach, less than a mile from the Beach Theatre, and just a few streets away from the temporary digs their son took after he and his wife, Elizabeth, split.

Carol and Michael France Sr., with Sandy, Feb. 18, 2021. Photo by Bill DeYoung

Their daughter Suzanne discovered her brother’s body that awful April day in 2013 – he hadn’t been feeling well the night before, he’d told her in a text message, and when she didn’t get a response to her texts the following morning she went to check on him.

It was complications from his diabetes.

Sandy, their son’s beloved yellow lab, who’s pushing 16 and on a daily regimen of pills, lives with Michael and Carol. Sandy wanders around the house, and sometimes she seems to forget where she is. Maybe she’s looking for her lost best friend. Carol affectionately says she has Doggy Alzheimer’s.

“She’s named Sandy because he would take her down to the beach from their house,” Michael France Sr. explains. “He said ‘Dogs aren’t allowed on the beach, but screw that, I’m paying enough taxes,’ and he would take her down to the beach. Then the kids named her Sandy.”

On the walls of their modest waterfront home are lobby posters from Mike’s movies. Carol requested them one Christmas, and told her son she wanted each one signed and framed. He rolled his eyes at the request, but gave her the posters anyway.

In the eight years since they lost their eldest son, the Frances have watched the legal wheels grind and turn, and turn painfully slowly. Mike died before the divorce had been finalized, and a complaint filed by his widow against his estate dragged on. The case was settled out of court in early 2019.

Suzanne France, Mike’s sister, is the executor of his estate and the director of St. Pete Beach Theatre LLC, which technically owns the vacant building. Michael Sr. is in charge of the trust Mike left for his children.

Which leaves the Beach Theatre, 4,800 square feet of nothing but memories. It’s isn’t a vintage art deco movie palace, like, say, the Tampa Theatre. There’s no former aesthetic glory to be restored.

Very few movie theaters use actual 35mm film projectors any more, having converted long ago to digital, which is much more convenient and ensures better quality. To function again as a movie theater, the Beach would need some serious technical upgrades.

“It never really made any money,” Michael France’s mother reflects. “And it was costing money every day to keep the thing open. But he still owned it. And his intention was to get his health in better condition, and then get the theater going again, when he could actually run it properly.”

RELATED STORY: Beach Theatre sold; new owner has ‘a lot of ideas’

 

 

 

 

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