Ocala Movie Theater Memories: The 1970’s
The great comedian George Carlin once said that his job wasn’t to think up things that were funny; it was to remind people about things they already knew were funny. I feel very much the same way about nostalgia and would much rather remind people of cool things they may forgotten over time than to try to define what is and isn’t cool at any given moment. I recently did a considerable amount research on the movie theaters in my hometown of Ocala, Florida during the decade that was the most influential to me in my pop culture growth – the 1970’s. What started off as a quest for information to help to put some events in chronological order ended up showing me just how important a part the movies played in my life. So if you will kindly indulge me in a little more personal voyage back in time than usual, I would like to introduce anyone born after the 1970’s to what going to the movies was like back when I was a kid and remind anyone who experienced it of just how much times have changed.
I was very fortunate in that I was born into a movie family. My parents loved to go to the movies the whole time I was growing up and loved to take me to the movies. My maternal grandparents also lived in Ocala and would often take me to the movies as a treat. I realized during this research that I can actually pin down many significant events in my life because of the movies. For example, I now know that I had my tonsils removed the week of February 20, 1972 because that was the week The Return of Count Yorga played at the Wometco Twin Theaters in Ocala and my father took me to see this the day before I went into the hospital for the operation. This film only played one time in Ocala and for one week in the 70’s so a little deductive reasoning gives me the time frame. The fact that my father equated all horror movies as the same as the ones I loved watching on Saturday afternoon television or the fact that this film scared the bejezus out of me and was probably the last thing I needed to see before going into the hospital as a child are immaterial. My father thought he was doing a good thing even if I was apprehensive about going to the movies with him for years after that! During the 1970’s, I was at the extremely formative years of three to thirteen. I went from being barely old enough to understand what was going on up on the big screen to still being young enough not to want to dismiss a large portion of the entertainment choices available to me as beneath my new found level of maturity. Those are wonderful years for most people growing up and I got to see a lot of great films, good films, bad films, and films I had no business seeing during this time!
Before we go any further though I would like to set the stage for what the movie going experience was like for me at this time. As the decade of the 70’s dawned on the Central Florida town of Ocala, we had exactly four movie theaters and in those days and that translated to four screens and four choices at any given time. Two of these theaters were hard tops – traditional indoor movies and two were ozoners – drive-in theaters where patrons stayed in their cars during the performance unless they were heading to or from the snack bar or restroom.
The Marion Theater was the pride of Ocala in those days, a large single screen auditorium complete with a stage as most movie theaters had back then. It had enjoyed many years as the first choice for films thanks in part to it’s location in the main shopping district. This was close to the town square which was originally the hub of commerce for the town and nearby to the Hotel Marion. The Marion was the undisputed premier theater in Ocala at the beginning of the decade but its days were already numbered.
Ocala’s first interracial theater was The Ritz but by 1970 its name had been changed to the less affluent sounding Florida Theater. It was larger than the Marion, with a stage and balcony seating, and it had to be about the closest thing Ocala ever had to an entertainment palace in its heyday. Unfortunately it developed a reputation over time for not being well maintained and when the Marion opened to provide competition many movie goers went with it. At this point in its history, the Florida served as the second run house getting the films that had played at the Marion a few months earlier. They also specialized in lower brow material like horror and action titles the Marion wouldn’t play in the first place. They were located on the main drag, Silver Springs Boulevard, which ran all the way from downtown to well out of the city.
The Ocala Drive-In was on the outskirts just to the south of town on Highway 301. The huge outdoor screen faced the road so travelers heading into or out of town could see a few moments of whatever was playing that night. It was the premier drive-in meaning it usually got the newer movies even if many of them had already played in one or both of the hard top theaters first. The Ocala was one giant parking lot with a single building in the center that served as snack bar, rest rooms, and projection booth for the operation. The double lane entrance was to the right of the screen which also housed the manager’s office. It was to my great fortune that my family lived only about two miles from this theater which made it a convenient choice for movies, especially on the spur of the moment, and this undoubtedly had a lot to do with my love for drive-in theaters.
The other outdoor entertainment option movie wise was The Skylark Drive-In which was more centrally located off of NE 14th Street. It was the same size as the Ocala but never as family oriented. The Skylark usually played either second run, even by drive-in standards, mainstream films or the B-movies the other theaters passed on. They were also the more likely of the two to book some dusk ‘till dawn horror marathon or road show exploitation spectacle. The Skylark’s film selection was already getting pretty seedy by the 1970’s which would have plenty more to offer.
Of course starting out so young in this decade did have a few drawbacks. The films appropriate or even mildly inappropriate for me to see were limited and it seems the Ocala movie theater business entered the 70’s with the winds of change already brewing. The 1970 re-release of Walt Disney’s animated classic Sleepy Beauty is the one and only film I ever remember seeing at the Marion Theater before it went into a decades long hiatus beginning in March of 1971. In July of 1970, the first new movie theater in years had been built in Ocala on the periphery of town heading toward the tourist Mecca of Silver Springs (remember no Walt Disney World yet folks!). The aptly named Springs Theater was large, plush (they used their gimmick of moveable seat backs to advertise it as the “rocking chair theater”) and state of the art which were all things the nearly thirty year old Marion was not.
Once the Springs opened its giant single screen, the pick of the new features went to them along with a large portion of the population who decided they would rather make the drive to the edge of the city than settle for stale convenience. The Marion tried to fight back by switching to more exploitation tinged fair and even soft core porn as a last resort but it wasn’t enough to keep the projector bulb burning. After less than a year of battling the Springs for box office bucks, the Marion closed its doors but the theater remained unchanged and unused for years. Several attempts were made to repurpose the space but it was eventually returned to a functioning theater and is still struggling but open today.
The Florida Theater remained mostly unaffected by the battle for top dog that ultimately claimed the Marion. They continued to serve up second run fair without concern for who would handle the prime cuts. The Marion must have been onto something though towards the end because once they were gone the Florida began to slowly increase the amount of exploitation movies they played. They also added in a very healthy dose of blaxploitation to cater to a previously overlooked audience and they didn’t need to worry about losing any of the patrons who had already written them off. The Florida Theater in the 70’s was Ocala’s closest approximation to a grindhouse and it was also, sadly, the only one of these theaters that I never went to.
Ocala was a growing city in the 70’s and the communities’ need for entertainment grew along with it. The Springs did not get to enjoy their victory or being the new kid on the block for very long. In December of 1971, the Wometco Theater chain opened up a twin theater on Silver Springs Boulevard, fairly close to the Florida and only a couple of miles from the Springs. The Twin, officially called Wometco’s Ocala Twin Theater, occupied one end of the Ocala Shopping Center. This major center of commerce was anchored by a Publix supermarket and also contained a book store, music store, Radio Shack, Woolworths, and my personal favorite, Toy King. What the Twin lacked in ambiance, it more than made up for in convenience. It also made no bones about the fact that it was gunning for the same market as the Springs and would only show first run films. A few days prior to it’s official opening on December 22nd, the Twin held a grand opening party featuring local radio DJ’s, live music, and even gunfights courtesy of another local legend, the Six Gun Territory amusement park.
Going to the movies in the 70’s was almost nothing like it is today. At any given time today, a person in a decent sized city can have a choice of at least twenty different films in theaters with multiple show times at various locations. Back in the day though your selections were much more limited. You were lucky if you had four or five choices including the drive-ins, which were obviously only open at night. The movie theater experience also wasn’t compromised by home video, pay per view, or Internet downloads and even television, what half dozen channels you might be able to pick up by antenna on a clear day, didn’t pose much competition. Because of the limited number of screens, it was very unusual for a film to be held over beyond one week as it was more advantages to the theater to go for new product. Because of this, popular films would travel from the first run theater to the second to the drive-in and then start over again when they were re-released a few months later. This was a time before what we think of as “blockbusters” today and without the need to quickly get a title on home video while the publicity is still fresh, popular films could circle the theaters for years.
The middle of 1972 ushered in a new era of movie going in Ocala that affected me dramatically and didn’t even involve a theater opening or closing. In an attempt to diversify, the Springs added a two and half month program during the June to August school break referred to as the Summertime Fun Shows. These shows were a combination of cartoons, serial chapters, shorts, and eventually some feature film that may not have been as child friendly as it should have been. This proved to be a smart move for the Springs because, in the early days at least, they managed to routinely sell out their large theater to a horde of bored youngsters fueled on whatever they could afford from the concession counter. These summer movies continued, often repeating themselves over the years, until the early 80’s when the film selections became so awful that even the least discrimination of our youthful ilk started thinking twice about plunking down their allowance for admission. I have detailed these unique screenings, which my friends and I always called the “kiddie matinees”, that irreversibly shaped my young movie going mind in previous columns. (KM Part 1) (KM Part 2)
The movies in Ocala continued along at status quo for the next few years but the Springs had invested their Summertime Fun Show money wisely and had a little surprise up its sleeve. In January of 1975, they announced the grand opening of a second theater that had been added on to the building. This effectively eliminated the only advantage the Twin had held over them for the past three years. It was good timing too because a few months later in July, the first real blockbuster movie opened there – Jaws! Interestingly enough, the Springs must not have figured Jaws was going to amount to much because it was booked into the Springs 2 following on the heels of a re-release of Walt Disney’s Bambi. The new theater was significantly smaller than their main one which was reserved for the equally memorable romance trasher Jacqueline Susann’s Once is not Enough! Jaws bit deep and managed to hang on for an unprecedented nine weeks, about three times the length of any other really popular movie in those days, before it was finally displaced by Rollerball at the end of September. For Ocala at least, 1975 was the summer of the shark!
I have no idea if it was motivated by the energy crisis, some personal situation I was unaware of, or just good fortune but it seems like I spent most of 1976, especially the summer months, at the drive-in. Judging by the number of films I recall seeing during that time, my mother or occasionally both parents must have taken me almost every Saturday night for months. The great thing about it was you couldn’t have picked a better year in the decade or a better venue to see a lot of the great movies that have gone on to become cult favorites. During this time, I saw Grizzly, Godzilla vs. Megalon, Legend of Bigfoot, The Giant Spider Invasion, Dixie Dynamite, Futureworld, and At the Earth’s Core, among many others, through a car windshield. I even had the good fortune to catch The Hillbillys in a Haunted House, which was almost a decade old, as the bottom half of one double bill. This was by no means my only time spent at these outdoor entertainment pits but it was some of the most prolific.
The Florida Theater was always the forbidden fruit for me. It faced Silver Springs Boulevard so I saw the lurid posters for exploitation/sexploitation/blaxploitation films that played there almost every week when my mother would pass the place on her way to buy groceries. Of course I had no business seeing any of these films in my pre-teen days but it didn’t stop me from pleading my case. The Florida was also the last hold out locally for a lot of promotional gimmicks like movie marathons, give aways, and even the occasional live spook show which was an endangered species by the mid 1970’s. In spite of specializing in films other theaters wouldn’t play and audiences they did not cater to, the Florida Theater bit the Ocala dust in April of 1977 after showing Abar: The Black Superman! The building sat vacant for a number of years and was eventually demolished.
Almost two years to the day after Jaws had torn up the box office, another landmark movie opened at the Springs Theater and this time they gave it the big auditorium. Star Wars lit up the world almost as soon as it first lit up in theaters and I can remember the word of mouth on it spreading like wildfire. For anyone in my eleven year old age bracket, your entire worth as a human being was initially measured by whether or not you had seen Star Wars and this equation was quickly adjusted to how many times you had seen it (assuming that anyone who still hadn’t seen it at that point was either mentally incompetent or a would shortly commit suicide from the unbearable shame). I must confess some thirty plus years after the fact that I did not see Star Wars the weekend it opened. I don’t know what prevented this but the tension at school was mounting daily and my father finally made the uncharacteristic sacrifice of racing home from work the following Thursday so he could take me to an evening show and I wouldn’t have to close out the week being ostracized at recess! Unfortunately in spite of his haste, we still arrived late and for several weeks I had no idea what happened before R2-D2 and C3P0 were captured by the Jawas. Thankfully I would get to see the film for a second time a few weeks later, another highly unusual event in those days, and several more times from the beginning in theaters. After running for many months in its first engagement, Star Wars traveled from theater to theater and was re-released probably more times than just about any film in history!
While getting the biggest releases didn’t hurt, the Springs never stopped looking for alternate sources of cinema revenue. The summer movies did so well that for several years in the fall they would also add more traditional Saturday morning kiddie matinees that offered a similar diet of Godzilla, sci-fi, and even a few sword and sandal pictures for mere couch change. For the adults, they started a popular run of midnight movies long before the Rocky Horror Picture Show made it fashionable (although that one turned up as well). Included among these early cult offerings were films like Blazing Saddles, Alice’s Restaurant, Dawn of the Dead, Let It Be and Yellow Submarine. I am absolutely positive from reviewing the ads that the Springs must have “procured” a print of Monty Python and the Holy Grail that was always on hand. This zany British comedy played there at least a dozen times in the 70’s – more than any other late night movie. Of course I was too young to attend these but I still had my advertisements in the newspaper to study over and my dreams!
The end of 1977 brought the last major cinema event that Ocala, or more specifically its next door neighbor to the South – Belleview, would experience for the decade when the Belleview Square Twin opened in December. While this theater, which was located on one end of a shopping center off Highway 301/441, could boast dual screens, the theaters were tiny. Actually the entire operation was small because you could almost kick the concession counter as soon as you stepped through one of the doors on either side behind the ticket counter. While standing in line for refreshments you could nearly touch the door leading into the small theater for whichever side you were on. The Twin initially got a lot of second run and second rung films but since these were movies like Starcrash and Warlords of Atlantis this was just fine by me. My family lived on the South end of Ocala to begin with, so it wasn’t much further to go to Belleview than it was the Springs. At one point this theater really took a gamble and started playing X rated films in addition to their mainstream titles. This move must have been short lived as I don’t even remember it happening and that would have been a big deal in the late 70’s. The Belleview Square Twin went through a number of hiatuses over the years but this theater, more so than any of the ones in Ocala, still remains largely unchanged and operational to this day.
I first became aware of the concept of home video recording devices in the mid-70’s at the house of a friend from school whose family was involved in several local businesses. They supposedly owned this extravagant piece of equipment for the purpose of recording commercials for their companies but when he demonstrated it for me it was with an episode of the Wonderful World of Disney he had recorded several months earlier. I sat in awe re-watching everything including the commercials from the same broadcast I had seen many Sunday evenings prior. The closest thing we had before this was 8mm films but those minutes long black and white silent strips of celluloid had nothing on this! The video cassette recorder or “VCR” rapidly gained popularity throughout the remainder of the decade and stores dedicated solely to renting movies to watch on them began to spring up in out of the way locations where the rent was cheap since this was a fad that would never last! The Ocala theaters were dealt another crushing blow in early 1979 when an outfit calling itself Home Box Office or “HBO” for short began to offer an additional service for cable subscribers that allowed them to view uncut movies right on their own televisions. The times, they were a changing!
Film fans coasted out of the 1970’s with a much more self aware mindset than they had when they entered. The movie going experience was evolving and more extravagant films were starting to take up more and more space. The dynamic pace was slowing down and even though the number of theaters was increasing it sometimes seemed like our options weren’t really growing with them. The summer, Christmas, and kiddie matinees were becoming scarcer as people began to look to their televisions for more entertainment options.
I was blissfully ignorant of the cinematic education I had just graduated from as 1980 loomed near. I was more concerned about entering high school and being wary of the latest social norms whether I chose to adhere to them or not. The 1970’s would be a decade of entertainment I would never forget and now look back on more fondly than any other. I took an unintentional and thankfully brief break from mega movie-going at the start of the next decade but it was a move I would quickly abandon in favor of rekindling my cinematic interests when I realized that the entire 80’s lay ahead of me!