Polk Theatre: Lakeland Landmark Nearly a Century Old
By Jeff Roslow

Opened in 1928, Lakeland’s Historic Polk Theatre on South Florida Avenue is one of four surviving atmospheric theaters in Florida.

Throngs of people had been lined up along South Florida Avenue since 8 a.m. — about 6,000 screaming teenage girls, and fans of all ages, were waiting to see the one and only King of Rock ’n’ Roll, Elvis Presley. That August day in 1956 was a memorable one in the history of Lakeland’s Polk Theatre as its average attendance up until then had been about half of its 1940s figures.

Elvis performed in three shows that day – 3:30 p.m., 7 p.m., and 9 p.m. Following other artists, the King took the stage in the final 15 minutes of each show.

The scene outside the one of four surviving atmospheric theaters in Florida was probably more excitement than Lakeland had seen to that date.

“There was a contest where the winner was going to meet Elvis when he performed at the Polk Theatre, but she was unable to do it because of nerves at the last minute,” says Leslie Sikora, the president and CEO of Polk Theatre Inc.

While that show may be one of the highlights of the 91-year-old theater, its story and background and the fact that it has survived this long is a testament to the people who want this theater to be part of their home.

“(The community) was very supportive and excited that this was happening to such a fantastic and unique building. There are very few of these atmospheric movie palaces left, so everyone was grateful the community would have one of them right here in Polk County for generations to enjoy for years to come,” Sikora says when there was question about razing the theater in the 1980s.

With it becoming a liability in downtown Lakeland, a group of citizens in 1982 formed to save this palace. They formed a nonprofit group called Polk County Landmarks (now the Polk Theatre Inc.) borrowed money, secured a state grant and bought the theater for $300,000. Though there is still restoration that has to be done, the major part of it was completed in 1999 and much of the original equipment is still there. The Polk Theatre and Office Buildings was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1993.

Unique from the start

The Polk Theatre is one of four atmospheric theaters that still in exist in Florida. The others are the Tampa Theatre in Tampa, Florida Theatre in Jacksonville and the Olympia Theatre at Gusman Center in Miami.

In the 1920s, Lakeland businessman John E. Melton wanted to create a multipurpose building with a movie palace as an anchor. He hired an Italian-born immigrant as the architect and J.E. Casale made the inside look like an Mediterranean village. All a new look to Floridians, it was flanked by balconies and windows and niches. The lobby tiled staircases were featured with twisted columns.

Theater patrons sat under a starry ceiling where the stars twinkled giving it a sunset effect.

The building was a leap to be built in what was in 1928 a rural county. Polk County had about 15,000 people but the Publix Theatre Corp., which owned the building, equipped it to draw in crowds to what was a vaudeville/movie house.

The theater had a Vitaphone reel film system and an air conditioning system that was so powerful it would drain the city’s power supply, causing lights in town to dim. Well air conditioning was commonly used in Florida, it had to have an operator turn it on and off. That meant a trip to the basement where the theater had its own water system.

On its first day – Dec. 22, 1928 – 2,000 tickets were sold for the 1 p.m. matinée of “The Trial” in the first hour. During those days the theater featured vaudeville performances and films and for the first 20 years it was a popular spot for live events. Some notable performers who played there were Tommy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, Eddy Arnold, Gene Autry and Glenn Miller. The theater also did promotions in those years to draw people. In 1931 there was a Charlie Chaplin impersonation contest and in the Depression there was Grocery Night where a winner would get free groceries. Also, in the 1930s there were car giveaways brought in crowds.

Today, promotions like that aren’t found at the Polk Theatre, which currently has a capacity of 1,400. Now it books first run independent films, classic films, and shows that feature artists such as Michael McDonald (formerly of The Doobie Brothers) and Pat Benatar.

“Having those fantastic artists play in a room with the beautiful architecture and ambiance of the interior, and under the beautiful twinkling stars, is something you can rarely experience anywhere else,” Sikora says.

Also today the theater is available weddings and birthday parties. It also partners with other arts, social and health nonprofits.

Survived longer than most theaters

During the Depression the theater survived mostly through local acts along with the movies. While like everything else, it suffered financially but with it bringing in the top films and it being an attraction for teens and young adults using the balcony for what young people use theater balconies for.

During the 1940s the theater went through what is known as its Golden Years. It drew big crowds, then attendance started decreasing the next decade as times changed. The advent of television homes competed with it and many movie houses in the country folded. The Polk Theatre didn’t.

It survived the 1960s and 1970s as Lakeland started to become a suburban town. It also was having trouble getting crowds because multi-movie houses were starting up.

Talk was abound about razing the building, but the Polk County Landmarks managed to keep it and the community rallied to save the structure.

Today, the theater is supported by money it makes on it’s films, the Performing Arts Series, two fundraisers, memberships, and it rents the facilities for weddings, events, private parties, screenings, corporate functions and photography and film shoots.

However, Sikora says, maintaining what is known as the Crown of Polk County is a constant job. Even at the theater’s celebration parties – the 75th anniversary of the center held in 2002 – she said:

“The office building is in disrepair and in need of restoration. Large areas did not even have electricity. The second floor was made into a museum with artifacts such as huge spotlights, old movie speakers, 35 mm projectors, cloud machines.”

Polk Theatre is located at 121 South Florida Avenue in Lakeland. For more info or to purchase tickets visit PolkTheatre.org.