The Florida Theatre
St. Petersburg

The Florida Theatre at 5th St. S and 1st Ave. S in St. Petersburg - Aug 7, 1956
Photo (Bob Moreland?) courtesy Robert Gordon's "The King on The Road"

The city's first air-conditioned building, the Florida Theatre, was an architectural jewel.1 The architect for the Florida was Roy A. Benjamin with Robert E. Hall. Located in the Famous Players Theatre Building, the Florida was one of 4 Publix super luxury theatres built in Florida in 1926 (the Olympia, Miami; the Florida, Jacksonville; and the Tampa). The theatre was located at 22 5th Street South at 1st Avenue South, on the Northwest corner.2

In 1926, Ashford Greeley saw the Florida come alive. "I watched every brick go up," said the stage manager, who served the theater until its end. Greeley loved the art that graced the $1-million structure. He traveled the sweeping staircases that led to five balconies. He treasured the Occidental architecture and ornate ceilings.1

There were grand mirrors that reflected the majesty, enhanced by nearly 2,000 light bulbs. Oil paintings of Spanish galleons and ominous nobleman decorated the walls. Tapestry and armor accented the scene. "The most ornate theater south of Atlanta" had "gilt rococo chairs, red velvet-covered benches and lamps of wrought iron," journalist Betty Jean Miller wrote in 1992.1

On Sept. 10, 1926, a line formed nearly five hours before the Florida's 7:45 p.m. grand opening. By show time, a capacity crowd of 2,500 filled the theater. Boys profited by standing in line for impatient men. It was the largest crowd to witness a local theatrical performance.1

1926: French actress Renee Adoree (1898 - 1933) kneels on the floor
by the body of a man in a scene from the film 'Tin Gods'
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Patrons shivered in the air conditioning as the St. Petersburg Orange Band played. After the national anthem, Sen. William Hodges dedicated the cinema. Mayor R. S. Pearce accepted.  Dancers frolicked to organ music before the feature film, Tin Gods. "A comedy closed the program, and the crowd left the theater feeling that it had had a part in a notable event," the press wrote.1

A screen 20 feet wide and 11 feet high brought Hollywood home. A movable orchestra pit and a three-story pipe organ were active during plays. "Sitting in the theater, awash in blue lights, was like being in a Spanish castle," said John Schuh, 54. "It was a dark cave with the smell of popcorn permeating the air." Said John Ormsby, 54: "It looked like an old opera theater."1

During the Depression, when tickets were about 30 cents, Bank Nights ruled. A winning number was pulled from a huge barrel on Friday nights. The biggest pot ever was $1,050, before reformers and better economic times ended the tradition about 1938.1

Atop the Florida's roof, guests danced to the beat of Rex MacDonald's Silver Kings at the Pigeon Roost, but elevators and rain ultimately defused the romantic garden atmosphere. "You couldn't get people to ride an elevator in those days," the Independent wrote.1

Sally Rand

Through the years, stars such as Elvis Presley and George Jessel shined on stage. Dancer Sally Rand opened many eyes, especially when a boy used a BB gun to try to pop bubbles that covered the exotic star.1

In August of 1956, Elvis, Scotty, Bill and DJ, while on what would be their last tour of Florida together were booked to perform three shows at the Florida Theater on the 7th.  The St. Petersburg Times reported on the 5th :

Tickets Are Going Like 'Blue Suede Shoes' For Elvis, Here Tuesday

Whether local teenagers will line the street in front of the Florida theatre before dawn Tuesday to see their idol, "Elvis Presley, still remains to be seen. His fans did it in Miami and chances are the local group will follow suit.
Already the theatre has been bombarded with requests by Elvis-struck girls pleading "if I buy my ticket today, can I be the first in line?"
One mother, to date, has demanded the theatre promise here that Elvis would "behave" before she'd allow her daughter to attend a performance.
Doors for the afternoon performance will begin at 3:30 p.m. on the dot. "Heartbreak Hotel," "Hound Dog," "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You," are just a few of his own hits that Elvis will sing. Other performers in the one and one half hour show will be: The Jordanaires, Phil Maraquin, Frankie Connors, and the Blue Moon Boys.
Florida Theater also plans a half hour musical short.
Elvis will repeat his "act" at 7 p.m. (doors open at 6 p.m.) and the last show will begin at 9:30 p.m. The theatre will be cleared at the end of each performance.
Ticket sales hit the highest peak yesterday. There are an estimated 2,500 left to date.
Well cats, better pack up your lunches and get in line. By the way, Elvis will be in Tampa today, Lakeland tomorrow, and is expected here about 1 p.m. Tuesday. Don't bother looking for a pink Cadillac, Presley fans. Your hero is travelling in a modest lavender Lincoln these days. To handle the expected crowd at the Florida Theatre the management has requested six off-duty policemen form the Police Department. The requested policemen will handle the crowd inside the theatre. Other regular patrolmen will be assigned if needed, Detective Lt. R. L. Lee said yesterday.

In the paper on the 7th, day of the show the Times reported:

The Town Rocks Today!

Today's the day! Elvis Presley, king of the teens, will appear at the Florida theatre for three performances. scheduled for 3:30 - 7-9 p.m. The palpitating Presley is expected to draw a record crowd of 7,500 worshipping teen-agers, filling the theatre to capacity for all three shows. Anxious youngsters will line the theatre's front in the early hours of the day hoping to get a choice seat for the first performance.
Ticket sales for the one-day stand have kept cashiers at the theatre box office on their toes since they were put on sale a week ego Sunday.
Tickets still are available for latecomers.
Presley's St. Petersburg appearance winds up his tour of Florida which included Friday and Saturday performances in Miami, a Sunday presentation in Tampa and a show yesterday in Lakeland, No reports
of unruly crowds have been made in this area, but at one point during his presentation in Miami Saturday, Presley's coat was snatched off him by a group of girls who stormed the stage.
The city police department will have a sufficient number of extra duty officers in plainclothes and uniforms.
Their duties will include keeping the crowds in line and escorting Presley to his automobile after each performance, to keep him from being swamped by his fans.
With Presley headlining the bill, other performers to take the spotlight will be the Jordanaires, the singing group that joined Presley's company six months ago and back him up on many of his records. Frankie Connors, Phil Mariquin and the Blue Moon Boys.



Fans lined up on 5th Street South - August 7, 1956
Photos © Bob Moreland courtesy Ger Rijff''s "The Cool King"

On the 8th, the Times reported, The pied piper of rock 'n' roll, a swivel-hipped, leg-lashing "entertainment bomb" blasted the downtown area into chaos all day yesterday. Screaming, fainting teen-agers lined the streets early to catch a glimpse of Elvis Presley, a rockabilly gyrating singer who's shattered show business with his sultry style. He hit St. Petersburg with the effect of a small H-bomb, sending fans in mass hysteria end receiving an ovation rarely seen on the Suncoast. 3

Photo © Bob Moreland courtesy Ger Rijff''s "The Cool King"

Sixty-five hundred shrieking fans stretched the seams of the Florida Theatre to the breaking point at all the performances as they shoved, pushed and stampeded their way into the theatre. There they watched the boy — who rose from a $40-a-week truck driver from Mississippi to the number one name in show business today - slink and slide across the stage. 3

Although confusion and hysteria reigned over the mob, police had no trouble keeping it under control. Several faintings were reported, but no injuries occurred. 3

A girl that had fainted in line is put into a police car - Aug 7, 1956
Photo © Bob Moreland courtesy Ger Rijff''s "The Cool King"

First in line yesterday morning were Clare Carter and Donna Bemis who set up housekeeping on the corner of First Avenue South and Fifth Street at 4:15 a.m., equipped with newspapers, Cokes, and an Elvis Presley fan book. They beat out two other enthusiastic Elvisites, Anna Muncy and Nila Shea, who arrived at 4:45 a.m. With long faces, Nila and Anne explained "we were the first in line to see him in Tampa and in Lakeland, but this time we missed out." 3

Photo © Bob Moreland courtesy Ger Rijff''s "The Cool King"

The two blonde chums seem to be champion Presley pursuers in point of mileage. Nila saw him first in Atlanta while there for a swimming meet recently. (She holds the record for the free style 200-yard event in U.S. junior women's competition). After seeing yesterday's first and last shows, the two girls planned to catch a bus to Orlando to see his performance there. Other early birds were Glenda O'Brien and Donna Wyman, who arrived at 5:30 am., and Nancy Harper. Lin Peters, Joy Cliett who hit the sidewalk et 6:10. 3

Photo © Bob Moreland courtesy Ger Rijff''s "The Cool King"

Persons headed for work in the downtown district noticed a sizeable crowd by 9 a.m. Composed largely of feminine fans, the crowd was almost at its zenith at 11:50 a.m. when a half-hour downpour drenched clothes but not their spirit. At several instances the throng broke into a chant of "We want Elvis!" 3

The Band's cars parked in the side alley
Photo © Bob Moreland courtesy Ger Rijff''s "The Cool King"

Uniformed policemen kept tabs on the eager Elvis fans but they didn't have much difficulty keeping them under control. Manny DeCestro, special officer for the Tampa Police Department, kept crowds in order as fans lined the alley where Presley was to make his entrance, sporting his new white Lincoln Continental.3

Doors opened ahead of schedule because of rain. The crowd swarmed in, but was kept pretty much in line by extra-duty policemen. Capt. C. G. (Robbie) Robinson said the initial impact of the crowd "was just like any bunch of kids all trying to get into the same place at the same time." 3

Capt. C. G. (Robbie) Robinson
Photo © Bob Moreland courtesy Ger Rijff''s "The Cool King"

According to an editorial from the Times on the 8th reprinted in Ger Rijff's "Elvis Close Up":

Toughest Job, Police Say

Police, weary after a day of controlling six thousand Elvis Presley fans, said last night they had never before gotten an assignment as rough. The Sunshine Festival parade in the winter they added, is the only previous occasion more officers have been called out for one event. Police ranging in number from 13 to 23 controlled the crowds throughout the day, and at 8:30 the 25 members of the St. Petersburg Police Reserve Association cut short their regular meeting to assist at the Florida Theatre.
Several fire officials were on hand and one of them, Fire Marshal John Gidley, exclaimed, "I hope we never have anything like this again."
Police were outnumbered and 'outdone during the afternoon, when a heavy rain sent 2,000 teenagers - and many older people - surging toward a relatively small awning. They had trouble again with crowds jammed against restraining ropes for Presley's 9 p.m. show. as the ropes gave way.
The newly-arrived reserves turned out in force to hold the pressing mob. Six girls were treated for heat prostration and fainting spells by Fire Department Emergency apparatus shortly after 9.
Two police officers found a girl's torn slip on a front row seat after the 7 p.m. show crowd had left.
And police had their hands full with hysterical teenagers who ran weeping from the theatre after Presley had concluded his show.
"I can’t stand it, I can‘t stand it," screamed a girl, about 15, to Patrolman Jim Krupp. "I can‘t stand it either, but I‘m not crying about it," said Krupp.
Patrolman Jim Liddle, who had gotten a Presley autograph for his sister, gave it to a teenager who pleaded to be allowed backstage so she could get her own. None were allowed backstage and officers stopped 14 teenagers who tried to climb the fire escape to Presley's dressing room.

Elvis being interviewed by Bob Hoffa backstage before his performance - Aug 7, 1956
If audio doesn't play in you browser click here
Photo © Bob Moreland courtesy Ger Rijff''s "The Cool King"

Elvis became captivated by an article about him in Monday's Times - Aug 7, 1956
Photo © Bob Moreland courtesy Ger Rijff''s "The Cool King"

A sneezing seizure hit him during his radio interview - Aug 7, 1956
Photo © Bob Moreland courtesy Ger Rijff''s "The Cool King"

Back to the radio interview - Aug 7, 1956
Photo © Bob Moreland courtesy Ger Rijff''s "The Cool King"

In their seats, Presley's fans were pacified by tape recordings of current hit records. Only occasionally did they clap in unison or shout for Presley. Loud shrieks arose from the audience when a local announcer stuck his head out of the curtain and was mistaken for Elvis. At the slightest motion backstage the shrieks were heard again. Sitting front row center was an elderly woman who had feigned illness while waiting in line in order to gain early entrance to the theatre. She went wild during the show. She was one of a surprising number of adults present.3

Fans cheer at the Florida Theatre - Aug 7, 1956
Photo © Bob Moreland courtesy Ger Rijff''s "The Cool King"

One adult, Mrs. Frank Dickie said: "I brought my 17 year old niece, Jean Randall. She didn't want to come by herself. She’s visiting here from Michigan."  Mrs. George Saunder and Mrs. M. A. Stewart came "just out of curiosity." Tex Babbitt brought his son Malcolm and said. "I'm getting a kick out of all this, too." Mrs. Frank P. Caldwell Jr. "came with Pat Faulkner, a 17-year-old Presley fan. "but I'm thrilled to be here simply because he's famous." "Wanted to see what all the teenagers are so crazy about.," said Dorothy Sauers. Putting many miles behind her, Pat Aulger traveled from Detroit to see her idol, Elvis. "I think he's; the 'most' even though my Uncle Al objects to him." Pat is visiting her aunt here.3

Fans cheer at the Florida Theatre - Aug 7, 1956
Photo courtesy Robert Gordon's "The King on the Road"

Although common courtesy was the key note throughout the two hours: before Presley's presentation, the crowd jeered "kill that square" when a musical short featuring bandleader Louis Prima was shown on the screen. Sitting patiently while the acts preceding Presley performed, the audience applauded Irish tenor Frankie Connors, shouted "go man, go!" while the Headliners blasted out their rendition of  "Caravan," yelled appreciatively after Nancy Ford's singing of “Sing You Sinners," and laughed delightedly at Phil Maraquin, comic magician. Receiving the most ovation, second to Presley, were the Jordanaires. a singing quartet that backs Presley on many of his disks.3

Elvis onstage at the Florida Theatre - Aug 7, 1956
Photo © Bob Moreland courtesy Ger Rijff''s "The Cool King"

First sight of Presley was the sleeve of his kelly green sport coat . . . "and the walls came tumbling down!" The audience immediately rose en masse to its feet, screamed its welcome . . .and then went wild! The girls tore their hair, the boys looked more awed than impressed .. . hysteria reigned supreme . . . as did Elvis.3

DJ, Bill and Elvis onstage at the Florida Theatre - Aug 7, 1956
Photo © Bob Moreland courtesy Ger Rijff''s "The Cool King"

Like the cool cat that he is, Presley, arrayed in black pants, white shirt, white tie and buck shoes . . . and the kelly green jacket . . . wormed and wriggled his way through seven numbers that kept his fans open-mouthed and screaming.3

Fans cheer at the Florida Theatre - Aug 7, 1956
Photo courtesy Robert Gordon's "The King on the Road"

They shrieked their appreciation for the sexy Elvis, but at no time during his performance was it necessary for the police to take action. Presley rocked 'n' rolled with the mike, belting out his most famous songs. Teaming the audience with false starts, he finally broke in with "Heartbreak Hotel" and followed it with "I Was The One." 3

Elvis onstage at the Florida Theatre - Aug 7, 1956
Photo © Bob Moreland courtesy Ger Rijff''s "The Cool King"

Then came trouble . . . in the form of microphone difficulties. His went dead first, then when that was fixed, the Jordanaires singing with him, found themselves unheard. Seemingly under control, Elvis went on with his gyrations but made frantic motions of "help!" to stage hands nearby.3

Elvis onstage at the Florida Theatre - Aug 7, 1956
Photo courtesy Robert Gordon's "The King on The Road"

At one point he asked for more "cord" because "I can‘t stand still when I sing." Despite his microphone difficulties, Presley's fans kept their attention on him with no let up. Apparently just seeing him was enough.3

What is Elvis Presley's draft status? That in the big question confronting him now, too. I'm draft bait," he said yesterday. He registered with the draft board in Memphis and hasn't heard from the board since, he said, adding "and I hope I never do."3

The Times had misreported on the 7th that this completed his Florida tour when in fact they performed in Orlando, Daytona and then under the watchful eye of Judge Gooding in Jacksonville before heading to New Orleans.

The Florida presented its last live production in 1957, South Pacific. Ten years later, on a screen double its original size, Clint Eastwood's For a Few Dollars More was the final film. Progress had declared war on the Florida, the city's first air-conditioned building and once the state's largest theater. The Florida had befriended patrons for 41 years, offering vaudeville, films and concerts.  "A tombstone flashed upon the screen," journalist Dick Bothwell wrote. "RIP Florida. 1926-1967."1

Clint Eastwood's "For A Few Dollars More"
poster courtesy IMP Awards

On Oct. 1, 1967, First National Bank purchased the Florida for $225,000. About 135 of the cinema's effects were sold at a sweltering auction attended by 400 people. "(Auctioneer P. Frank) Stuart started his rhythmic chant: $5. Do I hear $5?" the Times wrote. "With each sale, a bit of the city's history fell away."  When the wrecking ball came in 1968, the Florida Theatre fought back.  "It was so solid the wrecker lost many attempts to remove it, because (the theater) was so well built and in such fine condition," a city report reads.1

Northwest corner of 5th St. S and 1st Ave. S, St Petersburg, FL - 2008
Photo courtesy Microsoft Corporation © EathData

During the Florida's destruction in 1968, two workers were nearly killed when an 80-foot crane crashed to the ground. "Downtown St. Petersburg has been the scene of a symbolic battle -- the Florida Theatre vs. the great metal fist of the Cuyohaga Wrecking Co.," the Times wrote.1

Ted White bemoaned the devastation in Marquee magazine: "The loss of the Florida was a terrible waste. The Florida had great potential to become a true center for civic functions. Had there been adequate community action and even a minimum sense of basic responsibility, it would be standing today."1

page added August 15, 2008

This text on this page is comprised almost entirely from articles appearing the St. Petersburg Times courtesy the St Petersburg Library and Ger Rijff's "Elvis Close Up",  and those listed below. Special thanks to FECC's "The Purple Gang" for the suggestion to do this theater and the copy of Ger Rijff's "The Cool King".

1 from Venerable venue had awesome beginnings by Scott Taylor Hartzell © St. Petersburg Times, published June 19, 2002 
2 from the research holdings of Michael Kinerk and David Wilhelm, Miami Beach, FL courtesy John Clark McCall, Jr. and Cinema Treasures
3 from "6,500 Fans Shrieking Fans Hit Downtown To Greet Elvis; Some Faint" by Anne Rowe and Arlene Fillinger, St. Petersburg Times - Aug. 8, 1956


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