A Carefree Life.

On Dixie Highway, less than a mile and a half from downtown West Palm Beach, Florida, there is an abandoned movie theater.  It’s called the Carefree Theatre, and it was a major part of my life during the 1990s.

The Carefree  started in 1936 as the Carefree Center and Bowlaway.   The building housed a soda fountain and a ten lane bowling alley with “pin boys” who would set the  pins and roll balls back to the bowlers.  Automatic pin setters were installed later at great expense.


The movie theater portion began construction in 1946, and opened in 1947.  The two front rows of seats were removed to allow the addition of a curved stage in front of the screen, reducing the number of seats from 800 to 772.  There were offices and dressing rooms upstairs, and retail space along the northern wall.  An outdoor rollerskating rink was tried on the roof, but the idea was dismissed after one season.  One of the smaller shop fronts was a barber shop for years.  It had been converted to a tiny art gallery when I worked there in the 1990s.  I’m still getting to that.

Owner of the Carefree Theatre Jon Stoll. Staff photo by Allen Eyestone

In 1984, a man named Jon Stoll bought the center.  He already had a functioning concert promotion business, a company called Fantasma Productions.   He set up Fantasma in the offices on the south side of the building.   The old derelict bowling alley became the Comedy Corner, one of South Florida’s premiere comedy clubs.  People like Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher played there.  Dan Whitney (known to most people as Larry the Cable Guy) did opening act work there in his early days in comedy.  A restaurant opened in the northwest corner of the building, with a bar that was made from the old bowling lane wood.

1984 photo of Carefree Theater in WPB photo by Loren Hosack

In 1984, the Carefree was the largest single-screen movie theater in the state of Florida.  The theater started to run art and foreign films in 1990, and concerts routinely graced the stage.    A regular Saturday night showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show started up, and ran continuously for fifteen years.

I was in college when I first visited the Carefree Theater.  The year was 1991, and I went with a group of people to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show.   I was friends with people who were friends with other people who were in the shadow cast of Rocky Horror, and it wasn’t long before I wound up in the cast myself.  I mostly played Brad, but I spent time in many of the other parts.  There may or may not be photos of me playing Dr. Frank N. Further out in the wild.

In 1993, my job as a cashier for a county pool ran past my limited cap of hours.  It was October, so I needed a job to get me through until January came to reset the cap.  I got a job at the Carefree as a projectionist and assistant manager, and I worked that job alongside my county job.

I stopped playing in Rocky Horror in 1997, just before I went back to school at the University of Central Florida to complete my degree, but I still worked at the Carefree sometimes when I was back in town for the weekend.   Here’s a few of the things I most remember about my time at the Carefree:

  • Running many, many well known movies, including Amelie, Shakespeare In Love, and the Engish Patient.  We also did a run of Anime films on Friday nights that included Princess Mononoke and The Lensman.   The Jewish Film Festival would rent our space for their movies on a yearly basis.  So would the local Bollywood community,  which marks the first time I’d ever projected a movie so long that it had an intermission.

  • Accidentally starting a very, very large LARP (live action role-playing for those that aren’t familiar) of Vampire: The Masquerade.   The idea started as a lark, and quickly grew to an enormous crowd of people.  We got permission from the powers that be to actually open the theater for the game, as long as the concession stand had someone on standby to sell popcorn and drinks to the LARPers.

  • Wearing many, many fun Halloween costumes.  My best-ever costume was during Halloween 1997, when I dressed as Jareth, David Bowie’s character from the movie Labyrinth.
    Me as Jareth

  • Meeting Weird Al Yankovic, BB King, Howard Jones, Lisa Loeb, and so many more before or after their shows.  I bumped into Ben Folds in the bathroom, and had an entire conversation with him without knowing that he was the lead singer in that new band that was playing that night.   There were so many amazing concerts at this place that I couldn’t even list them all.  Tori Amos played the Carefree when her latest release was Little Earthquakes.

  • Seeing comedy live from people like Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Hicks, Richard Jeni, Carrot Top, Tommy Chong, and Patton Oswalt.  Patton Oswalt and Dana Gould played the Comedy Corner on the same night, and when their show was done they came over to see the last half of Rocky Horror.  Dana Gould writes for the Simpsons now, and Patton Oswalt is in absolutely everything else.  I sat in Patton Oswalt’s lap during the floor show part of the movie, and he was a really good sport about it.  Michael Winslow, the sound effects guy from the Police Academy movies did a few shows there, and I got to meet him offstage in the afternoon.  It turns out he makes those sounds all the time.

  • One night while closing up, I went around the back of the building to trip a power breaker, and I fell into an open manhole.  There had been construction recently, and someone left the cover open.   It was also dark, and I wasn’t expecting to lose six feet of height in half a second.   I got six or seven stitches in my shin from that little adventure.   My injuries are frequently cartoonish in nature, and this is a perfect example of that.

  • Joy, one of my then-coworkers, told me that at one point, some of the staff from the comedy club next door were playing with a Ouija board in the wait-station behind the bar. There was a history of odd events and vaguely supernatural spookiness in the building, and they discovered from their Ouija dabbling that there was an entity named “Steven” who was stuck in the building and couldn’t leave.  Joy’s deadpan response still makes me laugh: “Yeah, but he’s still alive.”

I finally turned in my keys in 2001.  In 2004, South Florida had a whole bunch of bad hurricanes hit us in a row, causing roof damage.  In December of 2005, during the Jewish Film Festival, part of the roof collapsed.  There were 600 people in the Carefree Theatre, but the collapse was over an empty storefront.  The building was evacuated, but nobody was injured.  In March of 2006, the damaged part of the building was demolished.

030306 MET Carefree Staff Photo by Lannis Waters/ The Palm Beach Post 0019825A [ WITH STORY BY TBA??] ---WEST PALM BEACH--- Workers with Southeast Contracting Services tear down and haul off debris from the damaged portion of the Carefree Theatre building Friday. The Carefree Theatre was deemed unsafe by city inspectors after a roof collapsed on the south side of the building in December. 3/3/06. ..... NOT FOR DISTRIBUTION OUTSIDE COX PAPERS OUT PALM BEACH, BROWARD, MARTIN, ST. LUCIE, INDIAN RIVER AND OKEECHOBEE COUNTIES IN FLORIDA. ORLANDO OUT. NO SALES. TV OUT. TABLOIDS OUT. MAGAZINES OUT. WIDE WORLD OUT. INTERNET USE OUT. ORG XMIT: MER0603031518146801 ORG XMIT: MER0703191752118553

In 2008, Jon Stoll died of a stroke.  The theater has been empty ever since.  Here’s what it looks like now, on any night that has epic stormclouds:

The Carefree Theater on South Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach Friday morning, October 30, 2015. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

So many relationships formed while I was working there.  Several marriages still hold from those days.  Several funerals, too.    And many, many friendships.  A hefty chunk of my Facebook friend-list is people who I met during my years working there.   One good friend, John Rundell, has been saying for years that he wants us to buy the abandoned theater to reopen it in some way.

It turns out we missed our window of opportunity, though.  Lori Stoll,  Jon’s widow, sold the entire complex to a developer and film producer named Charles Cohen.  He’s planning on razing the building to the ground and rebuilding it with a six-screen stadium-style movie theater, with apartments above the theater.

He still plans on showing art house and foreign films, though.  Maybe it will still seem like the place I remember.

South Florida friends, do you have any fond memories of the Carefree Theatre?

12 thoughts on “A Carefree Life.

  1. Lisa

    You weave quite an amazing tale. Makes me wish I’d seen the theatre in its heyday. Your storytelling did remind me of the small town theatre where I grew up and some of the memories I had of that place. It’s interesting how physical places can be so embed with meaning. The ouija board story is awesome!


  2. Bunny

    Ooo, I saw Amalie there! Also took my mom to see a couple of French films with subtitles (she was first generation French). But my favorite memory was seeing Leon Redbone there. Half the audience had the hats. He put on such a great show. Thanks for reminding me. It’s been years. I didn’t know the theater had closed.


  3. jennnanigans

    Awwwwww, this is lovely! I had no idea you were so involved with the Carefree’s running! That’s so neat!

    My first show there was a big benefit for Billy Hungerford. Do you remember that? I think it would have been about 93 or 94? That was a hell of a night. I went back now and then after that. I was never part of the cast but I hung out with folks who were.

    I’ve been thinking about it lately myself – I joined a FB group for my old high school and there was some talk of the Carefree. It reminded me of the people who used to be involved that aren’t around anymore. Such bittersweet memories!

    Thanks for writing this! Do you mind if I reblog?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. jennnanigans

        He and Ron Pribble were in a bad car accident. A piece of guardrail went through Billy’s midsection, destroyed most of his small intestine and left him using a colostomy bag for most of high school. Insurance was being crappy so Ron and some other people organized the benefit to help Billy’s family out with medical costs.
        They both went to my high school (and I had a massive crush on Ron) so that is probably why I remember it so well.


  4. Chris took me to see you perform in the Rocky Horror Picture Show back in the early 90s. I was a virgin (of the film) and yet everyone was really kind while my cherry was popped. For that performance, you were playing Dr. Frank-N-Furter, so I got to see you in ways I had never seen you before. With that memory, who needs photographs?

    Here’s hoping Carefree v2.0 is wonderful. Thanks for sharing the memories.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. My goodness, this is fantastic.

    My first trip to the Carefree was in 1992 for Tori Amos’s “Little Earthquakes” tour. It was the day after I got my drivers license, and it was my first ever drive on my own, taking my mom’s Nissan Sentra up from Plantation where we lived all the way to West Palm Beach—a wholly foreign land to me. I was 17 years old.

    Leaving plenty early to make sure I got there on time for the opening act E (during his “Man Called ‘E’ ” tour, prior to the Eels), I ended up getting lost and turned around because of construction, driving in circles while the fuel gauge sank down towards empty. Completely by happenstance, I ended up driving past the theatre in my haze of fear and confusion. Parking seemed easy, as I pulled into a mostly empty lot a couple of blocks away.

    The show was magnificent, and afterwards I stayed around an extra hour to meet Tori herself, communing with like-minded fans who were in the early phases of discovering a monumental new creative force. Despite the oppressive humidity, we all laughed together, we sang (“Assholes are cheap today …”), and we chatted excitedly in anticipation of her arrival. My moment came, and she signed my program and gave me a big hug.

    Floating, stars in my eyes, I made my way back to the parking lot to drive off … only to find the fence was locked, and my car was the only one in there.

    In a near panic, I walked around trying to find someone, anyone, who could help me. Most people had dispersed by this point, and even the theatre appeared to be empty. “Hello? Hello?” I urgently whispered, until finally a man approached me with the key to the lot. He was not happy.

    Apparently, I had mistakenly parked in a valet lot, so naturally he tried to extort money out of me. I explained that I had spent my only cash on the t-shirt in my hand, secretly saving the $5 bill in my pocket to buy enough gas to get home. At first he refused to budge, but I promised him I would mail a check as soon as I got home if only he’d give me his address. Reluctantly, he agreed.

    Newly freed, I hit the road looking for a gas station. Already quite shaken by the parking lot experience, I was truly afraid of running out of gas in the middle of the night in an unknown part of town, an hour from home. Finally, I found an open Mobil station and filled what I could, before hitting the road back home. I never mailed him a check.

    My first solo drive, my my first solo concert, meeting an idol, almost losing a car … It was a near disaster and an absolute adventure, and I was unprepared for it every step of the way, but man—I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Rob

    Aside from all those Saturday nights at RHPS, I worked many shows there as well from 94 – 98 as a stage hand. The most memorable were Weird Al and Henry Rollins.


  7. Another #CarefreeMemories story: I went to see Weird Al perform at the Carefree Theatre some time in the mid ’90s, excited about my seat in the 5th row center. I took my place just seconds before the opening act comedian took the stage to bore us with his lame jokes, keeping the audience unenthusiastic and completely disengaged. Halfway through the comic’s routine, I had just about had it and was about to get up and check out the merch stand for a t-shirt when he randomly picked me out of the audience to assist him with a stunt onstage.

    It was a hackneyed magic trick routine where he would pretend to cut my $20 bill in half and then reveal it as okay by the end—except I only had a $5 and snarked some comment about the IRS. The audience laughed, so I made another snarky comment in reply to something else the comic said. The audience laughed again. Immediately after the routine, the comedian enlisted my aid in flinging marshmallows out into the audience with some air-gun toy (yes, he really did this), and I made a couple more comments. It was clear that I was lightly heckling him from the stage itself. The audience was with me, and they laughed harder. What could have been a very embarrassing stint as a 3rd rate comic’s assistant turned out far better for me, at the expense of the comedian himself. It helped that I don’t think he noticed, which might have made it all the more funny to the audience.

    Exiting the stage behind the curtain is where I saw it: Weird Al’s accordion, sitting unguarded on a stool, radiating, pulsating, beckoning to me … Taking a quick look in each direction to make sure no one was watching, I tentatively extended one single index finger and tenderly pressed it down on top of the holy instrument, and then I floated back to my seat.

    After the concert, I stopped at a fast food joint about half an hour away. As I waited in line to make my order, a man with two children approached me and asked if I was the guy on stage with the comedian at the Weird Al concert. When I told him yes, he said that I was the only thing about the act that made him and his kids laugh, commending me on a job well done. He thought I was part of the routine.

    And that’s why I tell people that one time I was the opening act for Weird Al.


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