The early movie theaters of downtown Fort Myers

2022-07-30 01:59:55 By : Ms. Cherry Huang

On a September evening in 1908, the lantern lights in a wood-frame storage building behind a saloon on First Street in Fort Myers dimmed.

The room, though crowded with people, was silent. And then the clicking and whirring noises of a machine caused a bit of restless motion among the crowd. Suddenly lights flickered upon the canvas draped across one wall of the room.

With a sharp intake of breath, the people seated on the benches before the canvas and those standing in every other available space of the room, gazed awestruck, their eyes mirroring the flickering lights, at the first moving picture show they had ever seen.

The film lasted only minutes, but when the screen went dark and as Mrs. John Hendry held down the last, trembling piano chord of the grand musical finale, applause and excited chatter filled the first movie theater in Fort Myers and spilled out with the audience into night. There, in lantern light, most of the town’s citizens awaited their turn to see “Western Romance,” Fort Myers’ first movie.

Flushed and grinning, John Towles Hendry, proud owner of the moving picture machine, accepted the handshakes and back slaps of his patrons coming and going for eight more showings of the film that night.

Early stages of the movies in Fort Myers

Hendry had brought in an expert from Tampa to operate his new moving picture machine, which produced, said the Fort Myers Press, “pictures as real and life-like as scientific invention can make them.” Hendry grandly named his storage room “The Royal Palm Theater” and advertised his “pictures” weekly in the Press.

When the new brick Langford building went up next to the Bank of Fort Myers on the southwest corner of First and Jackson, Hendry found a proper venue for his picture show theater. He rented space in the building and opened “The Grand,” promoting his picture shows as “educational, entertaining, morally clean and properly projected so they will not hurt your eyes.”

The Grand boasted a real stage with painted, roll-up curtains. The scenes painted on the curtains were of downtown Fort Myers, featuring the businesses of the advertisers who paid for them. When movies were not in progress, town citizens and traveling troupes thumped about the wooden stage in live musical and other performances. Though Fort Myers was troweling its way into the modern age with bricks and mortar, it was still a small town whose citizens were hugely entertained by the antics of their friends upon the stage.

A theater of our own

On the morning of February 26, 1915, The Grand was destroyed by a fire. However, on the other side of First Street, Harvie Heitman was building a new block of shops running from the Bradford block on First Street to Bay Street on the river, and it was no secret that on the Bay Street end, in the corner of a little arcade, he was creating the tastiest little morsel of modernity that Fort Myers had ever been treated to — a genuine motion picture theater. With the practicality of a businessman, he called it simply, the “Arcade Theater.”

Like the Grand, the Arcade had a stage for live plays and vaudeville acts, magic and local talent shows, but it had comfortable, built-in seats and a moving picture screen. Instead of a make-shift theater in a rented room, J. T. Hendry now had himself a real motion picture show theater.

In 1917, Heitman opened up the little arcade into a wider, block-length arcade running all the way from Bay to First Street. This avenue to the magic world of the movies was tiled and sky-lit, as it should be. And as it should be, the theater was more urban chic than ever with lamps and fans mounted on walnut walls, 400 veneered seats, a spacious stage with foot lights and dressing rooms, and lights hanging from a steel ceiling. This sumptuous new theater opened on February 25, 1917, to a full house.

After World War I, Fort Myers finally, fully awoke to the enormity of its potential. In the mid-1920s, the expansion and development of Fort Myers went at break-neck speed. And certainly, the modernization of the town would not be complete without a renovation of the magical realm of make-believe, the Arcade Theater. Now uniformed ushers conducted patrons to cushioned seats with the soft, down-cast beams of flashlights and the show began with the slow parting of red velvet curtains. (During the Saturday morning matinees, however, the ushers turned their flashlights, with stern admonition, full into the faces of rowdy kids pelting the stage with peanuts and shouting at the cowboys galloping back and forth to the accompaniment of Miss Effie’s romping piano.)

Mr. E. J. Sparks, who leased the Arcade Theater from the Heitman estate, also bought out the Court Theater in the Tonnelier court and turned it into the Omar, Fort Myers’ second picture show theater. At the same time, the Tonnelier Court was done over in the wildly popular Moroccan style of the era and renamed the Patio de Leon and Mr. Sparks, in the giddy exhibitionism of the era, built a walled, circular pool in front of the Omar and filled it with alligators.

Another oddity in the slaphappy ‘20s was the opening of the Royal Airdome Theater, an open-air theater enclosed with corrugated-iron on the corner of Main and Second. Now, ignoring the starry sky above them, people could pay a dime into the Airdome and watch “movie stars” instead.

Cowboys, gator hunters: Fort Myers at turn of 20th century

The Depression of the 1930s slapped people hard in the face, brought them back from the giddiness of the profligate ‘20s into the cold light of reality. So they escaped from real life into reel life. Sliding down into the seats of the darkened theaters, these children and grandchildren of pioneers lost themselves in lavishly staged musicals, screwball comedies, gangster shootouts and poignant social dramas whose moving reflections shone in their eyes like drug-induced hallucinations.

At this time, as a further inducement to escape into the world of fantasy, Mr. Sparks renamed the Omar “The Ritz.”

Good times are here again

In the recovering economy of 1938, E. J. Sparks began a $100,000 renovation of the Arcade Theater. The new theater opened on December 1 with 1,000 seats, “fully upholstered and of the same type as those used in the Radio City Music Hall,” reported the News-Press, extolling the wonders of the “deep ply carpet in the lobby and aisles…and the latest Westinghouse air conditioning (The theater was the first public building in Fort Myers with modern air-conditioning.)…the Super Simplex projection machine…the bubble-type fountain in the ornate lobby…” and a screen “increased to 15 by 19 feet with all walls and decorations designed to make the auditorium as nearly acoustically perfect as possible.”

The climate-controlled nirvana of the Arcade Theater had replaced the Pleasure Pier as the entertainment center of Fort Myers.

Within a year of the U.S. entry into World War II, three more movie theaters opened in Fort Myers — the Lee on Main, the Grand on Anderson Avenue in Dunbar, and the stunning Art Deco Edison Theater (with 800 velveteen seats) on the corner of Hendry and Main. In support of the war effort, the grandchildren of World War I veterans paid their way into these theaters with scrap metal and rubber and, munching popcorn out of their fists, watched live footage of bombers lifting from the airfields of England and yodeling cowboys clopping into California sunsets.

After the war, most American families owned at least one car and drive-in movie theaters popped up at the perimeters of the city. The rowdy children of the 19teens and ‘20s were now piling their pajama-clad, baby boomer kids in the car and taking them, bouncing like ping-pong balls in the back seat, to movies under the stars.

As the baby boomers grew up, the drive-ins declined and finally, closed. The Edison Mall had opened, funneling the business of Fort Myers out of town along Cleveland Avenue, and in the 1970s, the downtown movie theaters were closing, as well. The Arcade was the last to go. Efforts to resuscitate it as a community playhouse and later, as a twin movie theater, failed, and in 1984, the doors were shut and locked.

The moldering old theater stood empty for 13 years. But it was the repository of such treasured, communal memory that the native children of Fort Myers could not let it go. In its emptiness echoed the laughter of their youth. And so, in 1998, the Arcade Theater came to life again as the Florida Repertory Theater.

Today, the citizens of Fort Myers flock to the Rep for live theater as their great-great-grandparents once crowded into the vaudeville and community talent shows at J. T. Hendry’s Grand theater and E. J. Springer’s Arcade theater.

Like a turning spool of film, time goes round and round and here we are again, in a darkened theater, our faces lifted expectantly to the stage, waiting for the show to begin.