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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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?