“I want people to know the Beach Theatre isn’t for sale,” the voice on the phone said.
That voice was Mike France, the Hollywood screenwriter who grew up in the area, moved back, bought the Beach Theatre, and then went mysteriously quiet as the Theatre closed, opened, and then, in what seemed a death knell, closed for good a few months ago with the sign “Thanks for the memories” on the marquee. He asked for a chance to tell the community what to expect from the currently-shuttered theatre on Corey Avenue.
We met as Mr. France worked in the as-of-yet-without power Beach Theatre. He had the doors open and the breeze from Corey wafted in as he explained, as best he could without upsetting his lawyers, what happened.
“I love it,” he said of the theatre. “I want to get it going again.” His chief reason, he said, for closing lay with the projector: he couldn’t get the movies he wanted to show on the theatre’s old 35 mm film projector. Many new films, the Hollywood screenwriter explained, get released digitally only. Because the Beach couldn’t show newer films, it had to hold onto what films it could get for longer than most other theatres, which hurt attendance. A new digital projector costs $80,000, a lot of money – even for Mr. France, who wrote the screenplay for the 2004 film The Punisher as well as Golden Eye, Cliffhanger, Fantastic Four, and Hulk.
“I know, I know,” he joked. “I don’t even bend over to pick up $80,000, right?”
“I attempted to get a bank loan... to get digital equipment, but somebody interfered by illegally claiming theatre ownership,” he said, hesitating to say who instigated the interference.
That’s when things started to get ugly.
Mr. France has diabetes. That alone does not pose a problem, but, when in the middle of his divorce, he went into a diabetic coma, caused by food poisoning, his doctors later told him, it threw him out of commission for a month
He wasn’t in the house he, his estranged wife, and three children used to share in Pass-a-Grille. He collapsed into the coma in his apartment and stayed that way – alone and on his left side – for an estimated eight to ten hours.
“The only reason I’m not dead is my sister was expecting to hear from me,” he said. She showed up at his apartment with the cavalry; St. Pete Beach Police and St. Pete Beach Fire Department broke down his door and rushed him to Palms of Pasadena.
In the month it took for him to recover enough to leave the hospital, he says his estranged wife, without his knowledge or permission, changed the locks on the theatre. Locals watched as police showed up and supervised locks changed. What should have been a private divorce went public on Corey Avenue, and longtime theatre staff answered questions in as few words as possible. One day, Mr. France was their boss. The next day, he was in the hospital and his soon-to-be ex was running the show.
Mr. France heard about this as people texted him in the hospital.
By the time doctors released him – with significant yet temporary nerve damage in his left arm and leg – there wasn’t much he could do. He had to wait to settle the lawsuit and finalize his divorce before he could try and get the Beach Theatre operational again.
The Beach Theatre closed last fall, and the marquee read “Thanks for the Memories.” Mr. France said the sentiment wasn’t meant to be a final goodbye.
“The last move we had was End of Watch,” he explained. “I thought [leaving that on the marquee] was a little too grim. I thought it [“Thanks for the memories”] would be a little more appropriate.”
If you go by the Beach Theatre today, you’ll see a copy of a legal notice on the front doors of the Beach Theatre. The notice grants Mr. France exclusive use and possession of the Beach Theatre, pending the settlement of his upcoming divorce. Furthermore, the order also says that Mr. France’s soon-to-be ex wife had to return anything she had taken from the theatre. Mr. France and his sister are the only two who can, in essence, do anything at the Beach Theatre.
Mr. France promises he will reopen, as soon as the lawsuit against the person who interfered with the digital projector loan is settled and he can finish making upgrades.
The Beach Theatre, he said again at the end of the interview, is not for sale. He assures everyone he remains the owner and, he says, he hopes to reopen in the near future. When his divorce clears the courts, he hopes to convert the business to a nonprofit, which will allow him to accept help, volunteers, and perhaps get a partner such as the City of St. Pete Beach.
“Most theatres like this are nonprofit,” he said. Theatres such as the Enzian in Orlando operate as a nonprofit; Tampa Theatre gets substantial help from Hillsborough County and the Arts Council. Mr. France would like to see the Beach Theatre follow the same path.
“I have reason to hope, or believe, I’ll be able to get those [lawsuits] wrapped up in the next couple weeks,” he said.
At that point, he promises, the Beach Theatre won’t be just a memory.
Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.