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West Orange Times & Observer Wednesday, Sep. 1, 2021 4 months ago

WGHF goes to the movies

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The heritage museum’s latest exhibit is a showcase of photos and memorabilia from the Golden Age of film as it pertained to theaters and filming in Winter Garden.
by: Amy Quesinberry Community Editor

There was a time when folks could visit downtown Winter Garden on a Saturday night and have their pick of movie theaters to go to for an evening flick.

In 1941, movie attendance outgrew the capacity of the popular Winter Garden Theater on Plant Street so a second movie house, the Gem Theatre, opened on South Main Street. Both theaters showed the same film but at staggered times so the 35mm movie reels could be escorted from one theater to another.

The Winter Garden Theater was rebuilt in 1935 after a fire swept through the old theater the previous year. The name was shortened to the Garden Theatre in 1955.

At the time, Thelbert Peavy, who would go on to make a career out of managing movie theaters in Winter Garden, was responsible for riding his bicycle back and forth with the reels to accommodate two movie houses playing the same film.

Local film historian Irv Lipscomb tells this story and more in a Facebook Live presentation on the city’s movie palaces that debuted Thursday, Aug. 26, on the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation’s social media page. The segment still is available for viewing, and the museum is open for guests to view the exhibit.

“Thanks to the residents of Winter Garden, we have a lot of documentation, photographs and history about our movie theaters,” said Jim Crescitelli, director of operations and programming for the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation. “It was a form of entertainment that every resident could enjoy, and their memories are behind every image and artifact in the exhibit.

“I also want to credit Irv Lipscomb for his intense interest in our movie theater history, and our intern, Will McCoy, who spent many hours gathering the theater information stored in our archive,” he said.

 

THE FIRST SILVER SCREEN

The earliest record of a movie theater in downtown Winter Garden was one run by a Mr. Kannaday on the second floor of the Bond Building at Plant and Main streets. It possibly doubled as a vaudeville house. Lipscomb said no photos exist of this theater.

The name Collie Biggers is most synonymous with Winter Garden movie theaters, and he was responsible for opening several in the city, including the Gem, Annex and Garden theaters.

The first Winter Garden Theater operated at 158 W. Plant St.

A middle-of-the-night fire gutted the theater in 1935, destroying the interior, a player organ, its player rolls and many silent movie reels. While the movie house was being rebuilt at the site of the current Garden Theatre, a temporary theater called the Movie Hut opened on South Main Street with folding chairs and a bed sheet for screens.

 

QUITE A GEM

Lipscomb said one tale is that the soldiers in an Army paratrooper squadron stationed in Winter Garden during World War II crowded out the locals in the Winter Garden Theater so Biggers added the Gem Theatre in the old Mann & Mills department store on South Main Street.

The Gem Theatre was opened on South Main Street in 1941 in a structure originally built as a department store. It closed in 1948. In 2001, it donned a theater look again while the Muppets movie “Kermit’s Swamp Years” was filmed.

“There are some people who are telling me that when they were schoolchildren at Winter Garden Elementary, which was just a couple blocks down on Main Street, (they) would walk down there and they would have a special showing of some of the Walt Disney movies,” Lipscomb said.

“The front has been changed quite a bit, but the marquee is built of concrete, reinforced, and I think it could withstand any hurricane,” he said. “It’s going to be here forever.”

Today, the Gem Theater is nearly 100 years old.

 

ANNEX THEATRE

When the Garden Theatre opened in 1935, it didn’t have a balcony; owner Collie Biggers added one so black residents could attend movies at a time when Jim Crow laws existed. Customers paid for their tickets at a separate entrance before going upstairs to take a seat.

Years later, when the balcony became too small to accommodate all the black patrons, the projection equipment from the closed Gem Theatre was moved to a new building on Klondike Street in east Winter Garden called the Annex Theatre.

Advertisements for this theater announced the movie house was for “colored only.”

“It was a very low-budget operation, no signs outside, maybe some posters and that was about it,” Lipscomb said. “When Floyd Theaters came in and took over Winter Garden’s theaters, they improved it some. They took the old reader board from the marquee of the Garden Theatre and moved it to the Annex.”

The former theater is now home to the Maxey Community Center.

 

The Star-Lite Drive-In was constructed in 1949 at East Plant Street and West Crown Point Road. By 1954, it could host 400 vehicles. Because of the young couples who frequented the drive-in, it was nicknamed Peavy’s Passion Pit.

PEAVY’S PASSION PIT

Nicknamed Peavy’s Passion Pit for its appeal to couples who liked to get cozy in their vehicles during movies, the Star-Lite Drive-In Theatre was built in 1949 to accommodate about 200 automobiles.

In the 1950s, the capacity at the popular drive-in was doubled.

Peavy, for whom the nickname was created, managed the theater well into the 1990s. The theater closed in 1996 after 46 years. A campaign to save the drive-in, Save Our Star-Lite, was started but wasn’t enough to save the theater, and it was demolished later that year.

Today, a strip shopping center and a convenience store occupy the property.

“There are offices and warehouses behind it, and, suitably enough, one of those structures back there is one of the offices of the Garden Theatre, and they’ve got tremendous set-building space back there,” Lipscomb said.

 

AT THE GARDEN

Floyd Theaters took over the Garden Theatre around 1956 and improved the facility by adding screen curtains, the cinemascope screen and a big, new marque.

By 1961, the patronage had fallen off and many single-screen theaters were closing, Lipscomb said, because of the popularity of the television set.

Floyd Theaters remodeled the theater in a more colorful palette to make it more attractive and possibly encourage more patronage.

“Unfortunately, the moviegoers from years ago didn’t come back,” Lipscomb said. “That lasted about another year and a half before it closed for good.”

Lipscomb estimates the Garden Theatre closed in 1963. The Pounds family purchased the building and turned it into a warehouse for their motor company. They demolished the stage and leveled the floor but kept the balcony and projection booth.

A restoration campaign was started in 2003 when several local people expressed an interest in resurrecting the iconic theater.

“I’m such a movie aficionado of theaters, I would even have dreams about the who got together and we did a lot of planning sessions, talking about what we wanted to do —and eventually this building was purchased by the city of Winter Garden and we went to work on it.”

Five years and more than $3 million later, the Garden Theatre — originally built by Collie Biggers for $15,000 — was reopened to the community. The interior, including the Spanish Colonial balcony, was re-created using a photo taken by Lipscomb in the original theater around 1960.

“I couldn’t be more proud of our theater,” Lipscomb said. “It has been a tremendous success, artistically, financially … and we are so appreciative of the local people who patronize it.”

 

QUIET ON THE SET

Thousands of movies have been shown in Winter Garden’s theaters, and a few have even been filmed here. This includes “Sydney White,” featuring John Schneider and Amanda Bynes, “Matinee,” starring John Goodman, “Kermit’s Swamp Years” and “Letters to God”; as well as the HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon,” starring Tom Hanks.

Still today, it’s common to see film crews making commercials near downtown Winter Garden, too.

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Amy Quesinberry is the community editor of the West Orange Times & Observer and the Windermere Observer. She was born and raised in Winter Garden, grew up reading the community newspaper and has been employed there as a writer, photographer and editor since 1990....

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