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Carefree Theater in the 50s
Carefree Theater, West Palm Beach, in the 50s

A live music and film landmark West Palm Beach property for decades, the Carefree Theater was closed following the hurricanes of 2005 due to extensive and expensive roof damage. It has since sat in disrepair on a prime strip of Dixie Highway, but now the Carefree Theater is back in the spotlight with a new deal that will finally see the old theater demolished, and the new owner promises the spirit will remain.

The historic Carefree Theater has had many incarnations. It all started in 1936 when the building front on Dixie housed a soda fountain/cafe with billiards. Across the hall was a 10-lane bowling alley – the Bowlaway – (later to become the Comedy Corner). The alley opened with “pin boys” who manually set the pins and rolled balls back to players.

Automatic pin setters were later installed, at a cost of $50,000 a piece, a fortune in those days. In the early 60’s, part of the billiards room had pink carpet, attracting women to the sport.

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When air conditioning was later added to the billiard room and bowling alley, people actually complained as it changed the tropical ambiance. The movie theatre began construction in 1946 and opened in 1947 with “The Egg and I” (Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert). It originally had 800 seats but the two front rows were later removed to add a curved stage in front of the curved screen, reducing the seat count to 772. A glass-front “crying room” (for parents with babies) was upstairs next to the booth. Along the north wall was retail space facing the street (a barber business existed for years) and a suite of offices and dressing rooms were located upstairs.

The Carefree Theater through the years…

The Carefree Theater through the years

The Carefree Theater usually beat out the competition in Palm Beach with premiere showings of films. In the late 40’s/early 50’s, it was claimed that 1 in 10 people in Palm Beach County visited the Carefree Center every seven days. In 1950, outdoor roller skating was tried on the roof of the theatre but only lasted one season.

When Fantasma’s Jon Stoll took over the center in 1984, many conversions took place. The Comedy Corner that ran from 1986 to 2001was established in the area of the old bowling alley along with a retail art gallery. At the time, it was the largest single screen theatre in the state of Florida.

“Larry the Cable Guy” (Dan Whitney) got his start at the Comedy Corner as the warmup act/door person. Acts that would later play the Kravis Center – Bill Maher, Jerry Seinfeld – performed there. Along the front of the building, a bistro and sports bar were added. The theatre got some updating with projection equipment and Dolby sound. The screen was later replaced with a silvered screen for 3-D.

Fantasma began offering sub-run movies, live concerts on stage, and in true ridiculous South Florida fashion, The Rocky Horror Picture show ran here continuously for more than 15 years, making it, at that time, the 5th longest running Rocky Horror show in the nation. Pity the cleanup crew dealing with all that rice and discarded corsets. Films were later changed to first-run foreign and art in 1990, making it the most successful art house in America.

As a concert venue, the stage saw such musical acts as Meat Loaf (who fittingly enough starred in The Rocky Horror Picture Show as Eddie the Biker) Jethro Tull, Weird Al, Jefferson Starship, Cowboy Junkies, Brian Setzer, and many more. Concerts were primarily jazz and reggae but included live comedy (Sam Kinison) and jazz-pop (Basia). Harry Connick, Jr. and Melissa Etheridge performed on the Carefree stage just prior to “making it big”.

BB King would always play two performances once a year to sold out crowds. Due to the size of the Carefree, it was the perfect place for an intimate concert. Several world film premieres were held at the theatre, most notably the infamous film “Scooter in Palm Beach” (don’t go looking for it – it was so bad it was either retitled or completely removed from the history books).

The theatre also played host to the Palm Beach Film Festival and the South Florida Jewish Film Festival every year.Unfortunately, damage caused by the hurricanes of 2004 forced the closure of what was the jewel of the entertainment business in Palm Beach County, then Stoll died of a brain tumor in 2008.

Now after years of negotiations and failed deals, the property, is being sold to a national real estate developer with a passion for film — and a goal to keep the spirit of the property alive. Buyer Charles Cohen plans to tear down the damaged theater and in its place, Cohen wants to build a center combining commercial space, homes and a theater showing art and classic films. The new center would serve as a cultural destination for film aficionados, and continue the legacy of what the Carefree had been for so long. Cohen has pledged that the plan would be “in keeping with the arts and cultural community in West Palm Beach and with the historic El Cid neighborhood.”

Cohen is a New York developer who owns the Design Center of the Americas, a large showroom featuring furniture, fabrics and accessories in Dania Beach. Cohen is also a film producer who leads a company that was executive producer of “Frozen River,” a 2008 drama that garnered two Academy Award nominations.

City officials trying to position West Palm Beach as an arts destination are excited and Cohen indicated he planned to comply with the code and keep in line with the low-rise buildings in the area, rather than seek a waiver to build a tall project. There was thought to perhaps keeping the building standing, in a nod to its cultural significance. But the building needs major work. During the past several years, potential buyers made inquiries, but a sale never took place due to the condition.

Helping boost interest in the property is the growing investor attention in this section of South Dixie Highway, bordered by Okeechobee Boulevard to the north and Belvedere Road to the south. Efforts also are underway to further revive the corridor by narrowing Dixie Highway and adding wider sidewalks, bike paths and lots of shade trees. The goal is to create a more pedestrian- and bicyclist-friendly atmosphere on the road, so a new walkable, friendly, shady, upscale arts and entertainment district is on the very close horizon and the Carefree’s spirit will be part of it.

The Carefree Theater is back in the spotlight with plans to make a new theater with the same spirit of the historical Carefree Theater that stood on Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach from 1947 until 2005.

Sandra-Schulman Sandra Schulman is an arts writer, music and film producer. Born in Miami, her work has appeared in Billboard, Variety, Rolling Stone, Ocean Drive, Country Music Magazine, The New York Daily News, News From Indian Country, and Entertainment Weekly. She was an entertainment columnist for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for 8 years. She has authored three books on pop culture. She currently lives in West Palm Beach with her blue eyed whippet. Sandra Schulman’s column appears weekly. Contact her at sandraslink@gmail.com.
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