On April 4, the Dixie Theatre will celebrate the centennial anniversary of its grand opening.
In 1905, Alex Fortunas, a sponge fisherman, immigrated to the US from Trikkeri, Greece through Ellis Island in New York. The enterprising young man first moved to Tarpon Springs, where he entered the theatre business with capital earned by sponge diving and founded the Southern Amusement Company.
Around 1912, when Tarpon Springs’ economy faltered due to overfishing of sponges, Fortunas moved to Apalachicola where the sponge industry reached its peak in the first decade of the 20th century.
He opened a successful seafood house and with capital from it, Fortunas ordered the construction of a new theatre on property adjacent to the Flatauer-Wakefield Hardware Company on Avenue E; then called Chestnut Street.
The Dixie Theatre, described by the Apalachicola Times as “one of the prettiest in the state,” was a modern marvel with an aluminum and silver curtain to act as a movie screen and a proscenium stage for live performances. A projection booth at the front of the balcony was furnished with a Powers Cameragraph, an early 35 mm projector. There was an orchestra pit in front of the stage.
There were two 16’x16’ shops flanking the ticket office. To the left was a barbershop leased by Jenkins and O’Rourke and to the right a cigar and candy stand owned by W.G. Sharit that provided snacks for theatergoers.
The theatre had electric lights. The front of the building displayed 15 large white lights and 100 colored light bulbs. Inside strings of lights served the seating area and the stage had adjustable lighting.
Three stairways, two for white patrons and one for African Americans, provided access to the audience. Employees of his Fortunas seafood business were treated to free admission.
The main entrance to the theatre was through the ticket office, but African Americans sat on the left-hand side of the balcony. They took their tickets to “Uncle” Stathis Sardellis standing at the top of their stairwell. At the age of 80, Sardellis could read without glasses. In the beginning, he also changed theater posters around town when the movie picture changed, and kept the theater clean and sparkling. Later, the Fortunas children took up some of these tasks and Aunt Sadie Ford became the ticket taker for black theatergoers and held the job for many years.
The right hand side of the balcony was reserved for smokers who sometimes scattered ashes on the audience below.
The street entrance was tall glass doors that could be shrouded with thick curtains to exclude the light while the show was in progress.
The auditorium seated over 500 with 380 seats on the ground floor, 140 in the horseshoe shaped balcony and four private boxes located to the right and left of the stage.
The theatre floors were covered with “noiseless” rubber-backed carpets.
The main floor was on an incline to allow a good view for all patrons. Seating was in folding opera chairs.
There were four “cozy dressing rooms for performers behind the stage.
The stage was furnished with velvet curtains that could be raised into the ceiling. Fortunas ordered eight sets of scenery painted by the Kansas City Scenic Company as a backdrop for shows. These were “lifting flats” that could be pulled up into the 42 foot ceiling above the stage and concealed when not in use.
At the grand opening, a theatre company booked to perform failed to appear and Fortunas wound up showing a six reel moving picture. The theatre was packed to overflowing and the street in front was crowded with people seeking admission. A four piece orchestra performed consisting of Miss Hollister, a pianist: Mr. Albert Shine, from Tallahassee on the coronet; Dr. Rosenbaum, a violinist and Mr. L. Forsyth a trap drummer from Tarpon Springs.
Professor Joseph H. Becsey was soon employed as the regular musical accompanist. He played multiple instruments but normally performed on violin at the Dixie. He was also the choirmaster at St. Patrick’s Church for many years. Becsey was a native of Kalozsvar, Transylvania but immigrated to Tarpon springs in 1903 where he met Fortunas. Willoughby Marshall remembers his mother Estelle Marshall accompanying Becksey on keyboard.
In 1926, Fortunas bought a pipe organ for the theatre. The next year, Becksey died after a brief illness.
The Dixie was a magic place for children
Joe Barber said around the time of Becksey’s death, Fortunas installed a player piano to the delight and fascination of local children. Barber and his friends sat in the very front of the house as much to watch the piano keys move on their own as to watch the movie.
“Toto” McCluskey remembers attending shows at the Dixie during the 1930s. She too favored the front row. She and her friends went to the corner bakery and bought a loaf of warm bread for a dime. They ate it during the show and, sometimes, mashed bits into pellets for an impromptu battle. She also remembers a donut eating contest staged at the Dixie.
“A long rope was strung across the stage and lots of donuts were attached to it by strings. You had to put your hands behind your back and grab the donut with your mouth. I got mine all the way in my mouth and then I pulled it. When I did that, it pulled the donuts out of everybody else’s mouth, so I won. I didn’t mean to do it.”
In the early years, the Dixie hosted a variety of entertainments. The attractions for the first winter season of the Dixie were announced in the September 13 Times. They included “The Little Millionaire” a musical comedy; the traditional opera “Barber of Seville; a comic opera called “The Divorce Question” and a drama entitled “Sheppard of the Hills.”
When Barber was growing up in the 1920s, the Dixie was still a Vaudeville house. There was always music and a comic skit before the picture show.
Alice Jean Gibbs was a teenager working in Vaudeville around this time. She traveled by train with a theatrical company. The players performed the same stage act at each stop for six months but the movies that preceded or followed their performances varied from theatre to theatre. Her company carried their own costumes, sets and musicians. Traveling acts at the Dixie were usually less elaborate. Performers in Apalachicola might have arrived by car or aboard a steamboat. Traveling tent shows also came to town setting up in a vacant field in competition with the Dixie.
The theatre was an integral part of the community. It provided entertainment and a venue for community meetings. Memorial Day services, war bond rallies and church conventions were held there. During the first Mardi Gras in 1915, a huge clock was leased and displayed in front of the theatre for a week.
Locals also made their own entertainment. During World War I, the Times carried an account of a talent show at the Dixie highlighted by cartoons depicting town characters drawn by Mrs. De Bauvier and projected onto the movie screen. Caricatures included “Paul Ploger and his Million Dollar Dog;” “George Plaza who cooka da nica meal;” “Professor Becksey, Fishing with the Sun;” and “Elgin Wefing Pushing Business at the Garage.” On the same evening the Misses Floyd Rice and Loretta Long sang ‘Until We Meet Again.’ “They were called back to sing again before the audience would release them.”Miss Floyd Rice later sang ‘Hawaiian Butterfly.’ She was followed by “The Smiles, 20 girls in white who sang their way into the heart of the audience.” Later, Miss Patricia Long sang “Dear Old Pal of Mine” and “Goodbye to France.”
The whole program was accompanied by music performed by Becksey on violin; Estelle Marshall, then Estelle Marks, on piano and a clarinetist named Castorina.
The show raised $28.50 for charity which was divided between Descendents of Confederate Veterans and the old soldiers’ home in Jacksonville.
In 1927, a theatrical troop out of Atlanta used a clever scheme to insure a robust audience. They produced a traveling play called “Cupid Up to Date.” It played at the Dixie on Valentine’s Day 1927. The company arrived in town about two weeks before the production date. The actors were professionals but the chorus was recruited from local school children. At the Dixie, Cupid, a golf caddy in satin diapers, was played by seven year old Voncile Mcleod. The show featured dances ranging from the Black Bottom to the minuet. Not surprisingly, it played to a packed house and got rave reviews.
According to the Times, “Mothers attending rehearsals are entranced by the snap and rhythm displayed by their little tots.”
Nationally known lecturers also appeared at the theatre. William Jennings Bryan is said to have spoken there.
In 1922, Winifred Kimball, daughter of a Franklin County timber tycoon, won a national competition to create a scenario for a moving picture with her story “The Newness of Life,” which was filmed under the title “Broken Chains.” It was a tale of domestic abuse and triumphant love. Kimball prevailed over 30,000 other entrants. The judges included D.W. Griffin, Charlie Chaplin and Norma Talmadge.
“Broken Chains” debuted at the Dixie on January 1, 1923 with much fanfare and a gala opening celebration at the Gibson Inn but fell rather flat in theatres.
Kimball went on to direct a number of stage plays at the Dixie. A 1927 production, “The Path Across the Hills,” received rave reviews in the Times with special praise for W.D. Buzzett in his role as “Grandpa” and “Grandma” Mrs. Charles Marks.
Bill and Raymond Loftin, Paul Ploeger Jr., Little Betty Ploeger and Ada Clair Theobald also performed. Kathleen Nease played Zuzu the cook.
The Times wrote, “The dramatic talent was well represented under the skillful training of Miss Winifrid Kimball, authoress and dramatic trainer who has been responsible for many brilliant successes.”
The Times never appears to have published a bad review of any film or stage production at the Dixie, possibly because, from the 1920s through the 1940s, the Dixie was a prolific and faithful advertiser. Lengthy reviews of upcoming features appeared on the front page and large box ads were scattered throughout the paper.
From time to time, local businesses sponsored shows at the Dixie. In 1919, Hinckley Hardware presented contralto Ida Gardener accompanied by flutist Harold Lyman in a recital. Tickets were available at Hinckley Hardware.
Over the years, there were changes at the theatre. In 1918, Fortunas purchased Sharit’s sweet and cigar shop and put Josephine Porter in charge. In 1920, she married Alex Nicholas Fortunas, son of the theatre’s founder.
Still later, George Louis opened a diner in the Sharit building.
At some point, Nick Fortunas opened a concession stand where sodas, candy and crackers were available in the lobby of the theatre. Patrons were still free to pick up a burger at the Louis diner and carry it into the theatre if they were peckish.
In Sept. 1929, talkies came to the Dixie. The first picture with sound displayed was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “Broadway Melody.”
According to the Times, “The theatre was packed to overflowing with standing room at a premium.”
In preparation for the metamorphosis to “all-talkers,” Fortunas had the projection booth soundproofed and installed the very latest equipment including DeFoerest phonofilm and phonodisc talking equipment.
The Dixie was one of the first Florida theatres to display talkies. Alexander Key’s brother Robert published a newspaper article about the Dixie’s modern equipment in the Florida Times Union.
In the 1933, Fortunas added Sunday matinees.
After World War II, Carol McLeod became the projectionist, a job he held for 24 years. Voncile McLeod said she spent most evenings with him in the projection booth.
Frances Louis Cook, whose parents ran the Louis Diner, said she “grew up in the Dixie.” Fortunas son Georgie was about her age and he had taken on the task of changing posters. Frances would help him and then stand at the back of the theater and watch the show. Sometimes Georgie ran the projector and she would sit with him in the booth where two projectors sat side by side to minimize the pause between reels.
She remembers Mrs. Fortunas was an animal lover and always kept a Pekingese dog. Sometimes she would accompany her husband to the theatre and while he took care of business she would sit in the car with her dog or a spider monkey and socialize with passers by.
Georgie’s daughter Jody Fortunas-Wilson remembers begging to clean the theatre during summer vacation. She and her brothers and sisters had to take a nap in the afternoon to be allowed to stay up late but the reward was change spilled from the pockets of theatergoers.
Over time, the theatre became strictly a movie house and the private booths were removed.
When the Nichols brothers opened The Number 1 Drive-in Theatre on US 98 west of Apalachicola, during the late 1950s Television came to the county at about the same time. It was the beginning of the end for the Dixie.
By 1962, the Dixie no longer advertised in the Times although the drive-in ran weekly ads for B movies.
Fortunas bought a piece of land in Eastpoint where he planned to build a drive-in of his own, but he never did.
By the time the Dixie finally shut her doors in 1967, her demise was not even covered by the local paper. The shabby old lady sat shuttered for three decades until she was rediscovered by the Partington family, but that’s another story.