Support Us Button Widget

The Polk Theatre’s star-studded history

We’re traveling back to the Golden Age to learn about Lakeland’s oldest indoor movie theater, and how it continues to be a place “where historic is cutting edge.”

A historic theater building is shown with a palm tree in the foreground and a marquee that says "Polk" in the background.

How much do you know about the Polk Theatre’s roots?

Photo by @aschwenker6690

While the Lakeland we know today is rich with arts and culture opportunities, it was an entirely different story in 1928. With a population of just 15,000, Lakeland didn’t seem like the ideal place for an ornate vaudeville and movie theater — but businessman John Melton saw it differently. Enter: The Polk Theatre.

Melton was also responsible for major Lakeland developments like Cleveland Heights, but he struggled to borrow the necessary capital to build out the theater. He sold the unfinished project to Publix Theatre Corporation for around $300,000 and building began.

The interior of the Polk Theatre is shown, including a screen surrounded by faux windows and balconies.

The iconic interior of the Polk Theatre was designed by Italian architect, J.E. Casale.

Image via @fmofmpodcast

One of the most iconic things about the Polk is its Mediterranean-inspired architecture. The mastermind behind it? Architect J.E. Casale, an Italian immigrant who brought a taste of his home to Polk County through the theater’s tiled staircases, twisted columns, terrazzo floors, starry ceilings, and stage that resembles an Italian townhome.

The theater also possessed cutting-edge features at the time, like a 100-ton air wash cooling system and a Vitaphone sound on reel film system. In its early days of operating, the Polk’s air conditioning system took such a toll on Lakeland’s power supply that when it was turned on, lights all across the city dimmed.

Elvis stands on stage at the Polk Theatre with a guitar holding a microphone

Did you know that the King himself performed on the Polk’s stage in 1956?

Photo by Jerry Perkins courtesy of Laura Milton, Polk Theatre

Since its opening day in December of 1928, the Polk has expanded its offerings from solely film and vaudeville to include live events, even once hosting notable figures such as Tommy Dorsey and Elvis Presley. After the theater fell on hard times in the 1960s and 70s, a group of locals came together to save it in 1982 and continue to operate it as a non-profit to this day.

Do you have any memories of the Polk Theatre from its earlier years? Share them with us.

More from LALtoday
We’ve got details and a map full of drink deals: We’ll be highlighting the vibrant beverage scene across Lakeland, FL from July 22 to July 26, 2024.
What you need to know about Lakeland’s club roller derby league + how it’s working to change the face of contact sports.
Celebrate the role that the arts play in overall health + wellness with Lakeland’s inaugural Arts and Health Week, happening July 22 to July 27, 2024.
I scream, you scream, we all scream for — you get the point. Check out this list to find your perfect scoop, sandwich, sundae, or snowball.
Here’s what you need to know as the mayor, commissioners, and city staff determine the FY 2025 budget.
It’s no secret that Lakeland is home to vast amounts of wildlife, but what do you do if you see a species that’s hurt or out of the norm? Consider this your go-to resource.
Compare the cost of living for Lakeland, FL with national averages + understand how expenses in Lakeland stack up against other cities.
Whether you’re looking for a spot that’s surrounded by nature or bathed in the shade, consider one of these spots next time you’re looking to dine al fresco.