VINTAGE ST. PETE: Michael France and the Beach Theatre
The Beach Theatre opened to the public 82 years ago today, on Jan. 15, 1940. Originally published in February, this story – updated with good news, as you’ll read at the end – appears in the book Vintage St. Pete Vol. II: Legends, Locations, Lifestyles, now available 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Today Mike’s parents, Michael and Carol, live in St. Pete 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.
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.
Carol and Michael France Sr., with Sandy, Feb. 18, 2021. Photo by Bill DeYoung
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 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.
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.”
In August 2021, Englishman Christopher Scott, who’d moved with his wife and children to St. Pete Beach the year before, paid the Frances $652,000 for the Beach Theatre, more than the asking price.
It was on the market for a single day.
With no intention of tearing the old theater down, or selling the property to some condominium developer, the former IT executive immediately set about asking community members what they’d like to see become of the Beach, through an email address and a public meeting.
“I don’t have the first idea how you run a movie house, but I probably will be a good person to try and bring people together to make it happen,’ he said. “The way that I have it set in my mind is there’s going to be three stages: One is bringing people together and getting a collective idea of exactly what to do.
“The second stage would be then building the space, creating it to do that. And the third stage, which is once it’s built, is for somebody coming in to actually operate it. Who can make it run as a cinema, who can make it run as a live theater, or if bands could be put on.”
At the meeting, more than 100 members of the community were introduced to Scott and his wife, Maria.
Asked one man: “Your sizeable investment in the theater – is that a donation to the city?”
Answered Scott: “If I can answer your question as directly as I can, it’s an investment. And by the strength of an investment, you’re putting money into something hoping that you can see it develop and grow and …”
“Earn a profit or just break even?” the man interrupted.
“Well, I would like to see the operation of it make a profit, by whoever’s running it.”
“So your deep pockets aren’t going to fund it forever – it’s going to have to support itself?”
“I don’t have deep pockets to fund it forever, no,” Scott chuckled. “It’s an investment that my wife, my family and I have decided that we’re going to get involved in.
“And hopefully, the outcome of today, and the outcome of all the emails, is that I can bring people together that can hopefully help create an entity … whether it’s a not-for-profit, or an entity that can help develop it. My hope is to come up with a group of people that really want to get involved. Then I can bring people together who know how to put on plays, or to put on pantomimes or shows. I don’t know anything about that.”
The Beach Theatre is seeking donations to secure reconstruction All info is here.
Published 2 hours ago
on January 15, 2022