W H E R E H I S T O R I C I S C U T T I N G E D G E
Then & Now
The Polk Theatre was built during a golden age in the United States - the stock market had yet to crash (though the boom had ended in Florida) and the clouds of World War II were not yet on the horizon. Even so, it was quite a leap of faith to build a vaudeville/movie palace in Lakeland in 1928. The population hovered at only 15,000 people and it was a rural community.
Lakeland businessman John E. Melton (whose developments include Cleveland Heights and the eighteen-hole golf course and country club adjoining the area) planned a Polk County first - a multipurpose building anchored by a grand movie palace. Street front office and retail space would bring in the revenue needed to build the theatre. However, it was difficult to borrow large sums of money for new construction in post-boom Lakeland, and Melton was forced to sell the uncompleted theatre portion of his building to the Publix Theatre Corporation for approximately $300,000.
So build it they did, and it was a place of magic and wonder! The architect, J.E. Casale, an Italian-born immigrant, recreated a Mediterranean village in the heart of Central Florida. Flanked by Italianate walls with niches, sconces, and faux balconies and windows, the patron’s eye was drawn toward the stage and the full scale Italian renaissance “townhouse” setting that dominates the Polk’s interior.
The mezzanine lobby, accessible by ornately tiled staircases, featured twisted columns, delicate cornice and molding work, and brass banded terrazzo floors.
All of this splendor sat under the watchful eye of a starry ceiling. Painted a deep, royal blue, it fascinated patrons with its twinkling stars and sunrise/sunset effect. Because this simulated a natural setting, it was called an “atmospheric” theatre.
Imagine the awe this Theatre must have inspired in people who were not well traveled as today, Few would have ever seen Italian villas, and to walk in off the street and be immediately transported to such a place would have seemed marvelous. From the twinkling stars and puffy clouds in the high ceiling to the elaborate, colorful proscenium, the Polk Theatre was truly a miraculous place!
The two most impressive technological features of the Polk were the theatre’s 100 ton air wash system to chill the air, and its Vitaphone sound on reel film system. The air conditioning system was such a drain on the city’s power supply that during its early years of operation it caused lights to dim all across town when turned on. It also required an operator to turn it on and off. When it became too cold, an usher ran down to the basement to tell the operator to shut the system down.
It was during its first 20 years of existence that the Polk’s star shone most brightly. Beginning with the advent of the “talkies” in the late ‘20s, and ending with the rise of the television medium in the late ‘40s, the golden years of the Polk demonstrate that Lakeland’s movie palace was much more than just a golden screening room. Vaudeville acts, newsreels, and various civic functions also drew crowds to the Theatre. Consequently, through depression, war, and up until mid-century, the Polk served as a town center for community interaction.
On opening day, December 22, 1928, 2,000 of the 2,200 tickets available for the 1:00 p.m. matinee were sold within an hour of the box office’s noon opening. The film that first day was a Warner Brothers all-talking special, “On Trial”. During the transitional period in American popular culture, the Polk showcased both vaudeville and films. From its earliest days and extending into the ‘40s, the Theatre hosted a wide variety of live events in addition to films. There was a stage trap door that was particularly useful for magic acts. Enticing locals with the “Hollywood Scandals” were the McCord Dancers, the Sun-Tan Revue, and The Green Pastures. The Chinese Houdini, Li Ho Chang, also performed live on stage, and of particular note was Sally Rand with her famous fan dance. Other notables to perform through the years include, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Gene Krupa, Eddy Arnold, Tom Mix, Gene Autrey, Glenn Miller and the king himself, Elvis Presley in 1956.
Promotions to increase attendance at films included, in 1931, a Charlie Chaplin Impersonation Contest just prior to the premier of Chaplin’s City Lights. A Grocery Night promotion offered free food during the Depression years. You could also acquire a complete set of dinnerware by attending enough movies. More exciting, however, were the car give-aways held during the early ‘30s. The drawings brought huge crowds to the Polk and helped maintain its high profile community status.
As popular as car gifts were, no ‘30s era promotion so consistently captured the public’s imagination as did “Bank Night”. Also known as “Screeno” this was a form of lottery in which patrons purchased tickets hoping to win a large cash award. It was eventually prohibited as a game-of-chance.
The Polk suffered during the depression years, but somehow managed to survive, with a healthy supply of pluck and luck. Though the live acts were increasingly amateur and local, its ties to the movies only intensified. For throughout its golden years, the Polk was Lakeland’s outlet for Hollywood’s finest films - reflected in its marketing plan to draw “respectable people to a respectable theatre, to see a respectable product.”
A respectable gathering place also afforded a measure of freedom, and the Polk was a magnet for teens and young adults. The dark recesses of the balcony held forth amorous possibilities that were not lost on dating couples. Many long-term Lakeland relationships first began under the blue, twinkling ceiling of the Polk Theatre.
Through the war years in the ‘40s the Polk provided up to date news on the front and wartime fundraising activities were frequently held. However, the ‘40s are seen as the end of the “golden years” in Hollywood, due to a number of factors, not the least of which was the rise of television. By 1957 movie attendance had dropped 50 percent from its historically high mid-1940’s level. Theatres across the nation closed as living rooms replaced theatres as entertainment centers. The Polk survived for three decades after the end of World War II, but it’s luster faded as years past.
During the ‘60s and ‘70s as Lakeland grew and became an increasingly suburban town, the Polk’s downtown location became a district liability. And, with the advent of multi-plexes old movie palaces were vulnerable targets for closure or worse. The Polk managed to stay operational into the ‘80s, but there was a growing possibility that the downtown landmark could be razed. The Polk was like a fine lady who was forced by economic conditions to pawn some of her jewelry, but she never sacrificed her dignity.
In 1982, a group of concerned citizens banded together to save the Polk. They formed a non-profit group, borrowed money, secured a grant from the state, and purchased the theatre for $300,000. As a non-profit, the Polk continues to rely upon grants and donations in order to meet its financial obligations.
Major restoration of the building was completed in October, 1999, but as with any historic property it continues to need work.
The Theatre is supported by revenue from films, its Performing Arts Series, two fundraisers a year, rental income, and memberships.