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Friday, Aug 01, 2014

Jackson: Movie house coming back from the dead

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ZEPHYRHILLS It’s almost dusk on a recent Friday, and the irregular crowd shuffles in. In no particular order, and without any suggestion that this list is complete, there’s Scary Sid and his after-life partner, Dawn of the Dead. A pint-sized gorilla in coveralls. Dead Elvis and what appears to be post-mortem Tinker Bell. Also, according to the marquee, their ringleader in undertaker’s mourning clothes, Dr. Xombie.

We should say, in the interest of precision, the shuffling is not just in, but also out, then in again, and out again. Fright Night show time is creeping up at Zephyrhills’ downtown Home Theatre, and there’s still so much to do.

What they’re doing is anybody’s guess. The ways of the undead are unknown to mortal humans, although it seems perfectly appropriate that they are closely associated with the resurrection of a movie house once believed also to be well past its expiration date.

Turns out there may yet be life in the old place.

“I’ll give it a year,” says Deano Dotson, 52, Dead Elvis’ daytime alter ego, beauty salon operator and self-appointed theater re-invigorator. “After that we’ll reassess what we’ve done and where we’re going.”

A small town with big aspirations crosses its fingers, because if the amateur troupe that has pulled off two Fright Nights merely plays dead, downtown Zephyrhills after dark is the real thing. Which is why every eyebrow in the place jumped in joyful surprise at the discovery among them of Zephyrhills’ freshly inaugurated mayor.

“This is exactly what we need,” Mayor Danny Burgess said, although it was unclear whether “this” meant more occasions suited specifically to zombies. He had arrived, after all, in a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, lured by Sam Raimi’s “Army of Darkness” — a cult classic, according to those who should know — and intent on demonstrating to his bride, the similarly attired Courtney Clem Burgess, his expansive definition of “date night.”

We suspect, however, Burgess was speaking generally. More life in the old movie house would mean more vigor downtown and more local economic activity overall, a coveted scenario that has eluded Zephyrhills for more years, and mayors, than anyone cares to count.

Courtney Burgess, for one, is eager to see it happen … if only to balance the domestic scales. Even before enduring “Army,” featuring the scenery-chewing antics of Bruce Campbell (“Burn Notice”), the First Lady of Zephyrhills said she could imagine returning for an Audrey Hepburn double feature, hair stacked and suited up as the iconic Holly Golightly.

While the task of reviving the theater appears daunting, if anyone is up to it, it’s Dotson, a durable entrepreneur who benefits from having bolts that aren’t exactly snugged up tight.

The morning five years ago he met his future wife in the University Mall parking lot — both stylists, he gave her a ride to a hair show in Orlando when her driver failed to show — Felicia Richards, 26, asked him straight up, “Are you some kind of weirdo?”

Dotson replied without hesitation: “Yeah.”

Fate having intervened, their lives swirl happily along in a yin-and-yang relationship. “I make the magic,” Dotson says, “and Felicia organizes the chaos.”

Much of both, and more, will be required to fulfill Dotson’s vision of a downtown theater that can repetitively strike the community’s fickle fancy.

Since the theater was shuttered in late 2007 by Larry Rutan, who owns Zephyrhills Cinema 10 on Gall Boulevard north of town, occasional noises have been made about remaking it into the hub of downtown activity. But no one stepped up until Dotson and Richards moved their BeautyRadio.com salon next door last summer.

Hoping to find something constructive to occupy the teens who loitered near the box office, while also scratching his show-biz itch — Dotson once did production work for WMOR-TV, Channel 32 — he convinced Rutan to reopen the theater for experiments with old movies and live entertainment.

Getting the place fit for human occupation made Dotson wonder if it didn’t deserve its plot in the movie house cemetery. The icemaker was trashed; the lines serving the soft-drink dispenser grew mold; the men’s room floor needed a coating of bleach; and sweeping it out the first time filled a 5-gallon bucket with dead bugs. On the bright side, at least the exterminator service was current, Dotson says.

Once the larger of the two theaters was presentable in February, research began. Using a projector connected to a laptop computer, Dotson screens films scoured from his and his friends’ DVD collections and movie-streaming sites. He skirts royalties requirements by letting audiences in free, asking only for donations. (The real money, after all, is in selling concessions.)

Oozing out the third Friday of each month, Fright Night is on the threshold of success, with the most recent episode putting about 70 — zombies and mortals — in the house.

By contrast, “Western Wednesday,” says Dotson, putting on his programmer’s hat, “is a fail.” This week, “Angel and the Badman,” an underappreciated John Wayne picture, played to an audience of three.

Another big crowd turned out for “From Here to Eternity,” which didn’t surprise Dotson, but this did: The number who came in wheelchairs or pushing walkers. As Courtney Burgess says, “You can watch old movies on Turner Classic Movies all day, but there’s nothing like seeing them on the big screen, the way they were meant to be seen.”

And that, as they said when Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr’s kiss on the beach thrilled audiences the first time, is the $64,000 question. If Dotson can translate the First Lady’s sentiment into an enterprise that manages to balance the books, what Colin Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein memorably cried of his creation could at last be said of Zephyrhills after dark.

It’s alive! It’s alive, alive, alive!


tjackson@tampatrib.com

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Twitter: @tjacksonTBO

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