Historic theatres in Polk County: Smelling bananas, Wayne Brady, and 35 cents

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The Palace Theatre | Photo by Lakeland Public Library

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Whoever suggested that time travel wasn’t possible has clearly never stepped foot inside a theatre. There, patrons can be swept back to days gone by, seeing through the eyes of a Women Airforce Service Pilot or even brought to lands unknown like Treasure Island – where swashbuckling pirates run rampant + liquor is the currency.

One month into 2020, and we were feeling a little nostalgic. So we rounded up several historic theatres to celebrate right here in Polk County that have given us those exact experiences and more.

Electric Theatre
📍 Pine St. | Opened in 1907 | Fact: The name “Electric” was later changed to “Edison” in the silent film-era.

In 1907, R.M. Marler opened the Electric Theater, Lakeland’s first movie house. Though the silent film era was in full swing in the days of the Electric, watching a movie wasn’t always a pleasant experience. The theater smelled of banana oil that was used to fix the film when it broke in the projector.

The Palace Theatre

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The Palace Theater | Photo by Lakeland Public Library

📍 114 S. Kentucky Ave. | 1925-1950 | Fact: The location now houses Palace Pizza.

This small downtown theatre once featured an orchestra pit + a full stage, with curved opera-style windows doning it. In its heyday, moviegoers could catch flicks like The Shadow Behind the Mask + Jinx Money and would wait in line for double features.

The Ritz Theatre

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The Ritz Theatre | Photo by @jamppafl

📍 263 W. Central Ave., Winter Haven | 1925-present | Number: In the 1950’s, admission for high school students with their student ID was only 15 cents.

At its opening in 1925, the theatre was originally named the Williamson Theatre and was designed for both live performances as well as motion pictures. After a remodel in 1932, it became a movie house and was renamed the Ritz Theatre. In the mid-1980’s the theatre closed; however, in 1989, it reopened its doors as “Off Limits,” a dance club. A group of citizens purchased the Ritz Theatre to return it to its original purpose in 1997, and it still serves as a place for the community to gather and enjoy films.

The Polk Theatre

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The Polk Theatre | Photo by @helloooevelyn

📍 121 Florida Ave. S. | 1928-present | Fact: In its early years, the air conditioning system used so much power that it caused the lights to dim all across town when turned on.

Built during the golden age, The Polk Theatre has served as a place for community interaction throughout the years. The theatre began thriving in its early years and on opening day, the matinee sold out within an hour of the box office’s opening. During the 60’s and 70’s, the theatre faced the possibility of shutting down, but in 1982, it was purchased through borrowed money and a state grant, saved by Lakelanders who didn’t want to see the theatre go. The nonprofit theatre continues to rely on grants, donations and shows revenue.

Ramon Theater

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The Ramon Theater | Photo by Florida Memory

📍 15 E. Wall St., Frostproof | 1925-present | Fact: The theatre was named after the owners’ son, Ramon.

Believing vaudeville would one day make a grand return, owners Vera and Frank Thompson placed a wide stage, dressing rooms, and an orchestra pit in the theatre. In its early years, patrons could buy a ticket, a coke, and popcorn, all for eight cents.

Silver Moon Drive-In

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Silver Moon Drive-In | Photo by @honey.allison

📍 4100 New Tampa Hwy. | 1948-Present | Development: In May of 1950, the screen was severely damaged by a tornado, but the theatre reopened in July of 1950, and admission was raised to 40 cents.

The first-ever drive-in theatre to open in Lakeland made its debut on April 14, 1948, as the Silver Moon Drive-In. At the time, admission was only 35 cents and included a short subject, a cartoon, and the latest newsreel. The infamous flashing neon sign and marquee were added in 1952 when Floyd Theatres took over ownership. The theatre still operates successfully showing first-run films.

Filmland Drive-In

📍 3310 Lakeland Hills Blvd. | 1953-1986 | Gallery: Check out these photos of what was once the Filmland Drive-In.

The now-defunct drive-in was opened by Bill Clem and Joe Filletta. The All Children’s Hospital is now on this site.

Palm Cinema III

📍 4226 Old Rd. 37 | 1986-2016 | Drink: At its prime, you could buy pitchers of Sangria inside the theatre.

Although maybe not entirely historic, Palm Cinema III opened on April 18, 1986, tucked behind the Palm Center shopping complex. It was originally operated by Floyd Theatres but was last operated by Carmike Cinemas before it closed in Oct. 2016.

Bonus theatres

Though maybe not classified as “movie theatres,” here’s a bit more information on a few other Polk theatres, we were sent by readers. Is there one we should add to the list? Let us know by emailing hello@laltoday.com.

Lakeland Community Theatre

📍 121 S. Lake Ave. | 1951-Present | DYK: Lakeland Community Theatre has done more than 221 quality productions over the past 31 years?

The Lakeland Community Theatre was built in 1951 as “The Little Lakeland Theatre.” Their first debut show was in 1986 and they are currently on their 33rd season. It started out as a children’s theatre associated with the city’s parks and recreation department, and it is now a non-profit organization with over 800 volunteers a year.

Theatre Winter Haven

📍 210 Cypress Gardens Blvd., Winter Haven | 1970-Present | Number: They are celebrating their 50th season with a lineup of six new shows.

Named “one of the best community theatres in America” by the Tampa Tribune, Theatre Winter Haven was founded as a non-profit organization in 1970. Their stage has hosted stars including Tony award-winning actress, Karen Olivo, and actors Wayne Brady and Derek Seay. Now selling more than 30,000 tickets annually and hosting more than 120 performances per year, the theatre has continued its success.

Florida Dance Theatre Inc.

📍 305 W. Main St. | 1993-Present | Lakelander: FDT was founded by Carol Erkes who began her professional dance career at only 15 years old, performing with the Ohio Chamber Ballet/Ohio Ballet.

Founded in 1993, the Florida Dance Theatre was originally named the Lakeland Ballet. It was originally intended to be a training school, but after seeing the talent of students and realizing a lack of dance programs in the area, Carol formed Polk County’s first, and to this date, only professional dance company, as a non-profit organization.


– LALtoday team (Jessica + Kaylee)

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