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Theatre Theatrics or The Curtain Rises and Falls

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: George I. (Pete) Esthus
Source: Sarasota County Historical Resources
Credit: Wikipedia

Sarasota History - Theatre Theatrics or The Curtain Rises and Falls photo

While this isn’t intended to be a comprehensive history of Sarasota’s theaters (stage and/or screen), I hope you’ll enjoy a brief trip back through my early movie-going days when admission to the “RITZ” theater was 9¢ for a feature film, a western, a serial episode, plus previews and selected short subjects.

Years before my 1929 arrival, tent shows would set up and show non-talkies on the screen and sometimes risqué stage shows. Of course, 1920-1929 “risqué” would probably be rated “G” by year 2000 standards. As late as February 1936, Sally Rand, the famous Fan and Bubble dancer appeared on stage at the “EDWARDS” theatre. Part of her time was spent autographing subscription receipts for Sarasota Herald newspaper subscribers. Plus, each subscriber received a free ticket to her show! Just imagine, this promotion was sponsored by the newspaper founder, George David Lindsay, an ordained Presbyterian minister. But even that didn’t keep the “EDWARDS” open as it folded and re-opened later in 1936 as the “FLORIDA,” with new owners. Its life as a movie theater began in 1926 and lasted until 1970. It began its new life in 1979 and has been renovated and restored as the “SARASOTA OPERA HOUSE.” Today it is gorgeous and well-utilized.

As early as 1912 our first indoor movie theater opened the “Palms” in the newly-built fireproof Tonnelier Building near downtown Five Points. However, the building burned to the ground March 8, 1915.

A year later, Main Street welcomed the “VIRGINIAN” theatre in its own building. By the time I attained movie-going age it was the “RITZ,” with seating in the balcony for colored patrons.

Members of Sarasota’s colored community didn’t have a movie theater of their own until 1945, the “ACE” theater on present day 5th Street. Not many films had Negroes in start roles and the demise of the “ACE” coincided with the removal of the “White” and “Colored” signs on waiting room doors and over drinking water fountains.

In 1927 the “PARK-SEVENTH” theater was built at the intersection of Park and Seventh Streets (currently 1st Street near Cocoanut Avenue) by Mr. John Levinson. His son Leroy (“Bud”) and daughter Eleene Cohen later owned the Sport Shop (fine ladies’ clothing) at downtown Five Points. The operators of that movie house chose rather provocative films, such as “The Caesarian – See it in Real Life,” a real eye-opener. As with other theatres, it closed only to re-open in May of 1933 as the “GARDEN” theatre. Later, bought by the Sparks Company, owners of the “FLORIDA” and the “RITZ,” it re-opened as the “ART” theatre. Apparently, three movie theatres within three blocks of one another wasn’t a profitable venture, so the “ART” went dark. Other non-theatrical businesses occupied the building (unsuccessfully) until 1951 when it was re-born as the “PALM TREE PLAYHOUSE.”

Of course the “GOLDEN APPLE,” (former Morrison’s Cafeteria), “FLORIDA STUDIO THEATRE” (former Woman’s Club), and the “SARASOTA PLAYERS” theatre have their own histories, but we’ll save them for another day.