Polk Theatre

Back in the 1950s — my teenage years — movie theaters were not multiplexes in shopping malls.

Back then, movie theaters had one screen, which meant showing only one movie (except on the special days when double-feature programs offered two movies shown back-to-back). And shopping malls were still largely in the future.

The finest movie theater in Polk County in those days was the Polk Theatre in Lakeland.

It was built in 1928 — before the Great Depression — and is one of the few theaters of its era to survive to this day.

The Polk had 1,400 seats, enough to accommodate nearly one-tenth of Lakeland’s population of 15,000 in the year when it opened.

An Italian immigrant named J.E. Casale designed the theater, featuring the Italian-style of architecture with which he was familiar.

The high ceiling (the theater had a balcony that emphasized its enormity) was painted dark blue, with twinkling lights that looked for all the world like the night sky. In fact, my generation was never really sure that the theater wasn’t open to the sky.

Faux balconies and windows overlooked the audience, with enough realism that to this day moviegoers may wonder if they could pay a little extra to view movies from those vantage points.

In its earlier years, the theater was a venue for Vaudeville shows, newsreel showings, and community events, as well as movies.

A trap door in the stage floor was used in magic shows.

Among the entertainers who performed on the stage were Sally Rand, the most prominent fan dancer of her day, and Elvis Presley, who made an appearance in 1956.

Sally Rand and Elvis Presley are gone from the entertainment scene, but a magnificent pipe organ remains a feature of the theater, played before the films begin by a rotating group of six organists.

By 1957, attendance had dropped 50 percent from its height in the 1940s, as television became the entertainment center in homes throughout the land.

In 1982, a non-profit organization purchased the building to ensure its survival and restoration, and a major renovation was completed in 1999.

While much of this history comes from the polktheatre.org web site, some of it comes from my recollections of 60-plus years ago, brought to the fore by a family outing a few days ago to watch “The Maltese Falcon,” a black-and-white Humphrey Bogart classic from 1941.

Tickets generally range from $5 for black-and-white movies of yesteryear to $8 for contemporary films, with an occasional dinner theater event for $22.

It’s a step into yesteryear for my generation and a glimpse of the grandeur of multi-purpose “theatres” for younger people for whom black-and-white films are a new experience.

(S. L. Frisbie is retired. He cautions that restrooms at the Polk Theatre are two flights of stairs up to the balcony level, and there are no elevators. He doesn’t remember that being an issue in the 1950s.)

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