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Thursday, Mar 21, 2019
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Mike France’s death clouds fate of St. Pete Beach theater

ST. PETE BEACH - When screenwriter Mike France decided to buy the Beach Theatre in 2007, he smiled for days – similar to the way he beamed after selling his first screenplay, “Cliffhanger,” which became a major Hollywood movie. “He said, ‘I cannot just let this theater go by,’” his sister, Suzanne France, said. The 51-year-old died last Friday at his St. Pete Beach home from complications of diabetes. His death, which friends and family are still mourning, only further complicates the future of the Beach Theatre. The local institution, known for showing independent films and hosting benefits, closed in November under mounting financial pressures. At the time of France’s death, he was involved in two lawsuits, which ultimately could determine who owns the theater: a messy divorce from his estranged wife, Elizabeth, and a civil suit over a short-term loan intended to help France modernize the projection system.
Now, the Corey Avenue landmark has lost its champion. “The future of the St. Pete Beach theater is a lot dimmer now that Mike France has passed away,” said George Hayes III, France’s lawyer in the civil case. “Mike had a plan. … That was his world, that was his business, and he had a plan to do it. … It takes a dreamer.” France bought the Beach Theatre, built in 1940, as a labor of love. Growing up, he and his family frequently saw movies there, his sister said. In the years before France bought it, the theater gained a reputation for showing independent and foreign films. France shook things up. He hosted Bob Dylan tributes, screened concert films and showed free family films on Saturday mornings. When he showed “The Big Lebowski,” France served white Russians – the main character’s signature cocktail. When “Jaws” was on the marquee, he served shark sandwiches. “It was more than just a theater,” said Lee “Flee” Courtney, the music director at WMNF radio, which held numerous benefits at the Beach Theatre. “He was happy just to make the popcorn and soda [and beer] money back.” The theater was packed for benefits and weekly screenings of “The Rocking Horror Picture Show,” but the crowds dwindled on regular nights. France couldn’t keep up with the costs of running a single-screen venue without a digital projector and modern sound system that could have pulled in bigger crowds with more mainstream contemporary movies. “The biggest problem he had was that the projection system was antiquated and possibly obsolete,” Hayes said. Last year, France arranged for a short-term “bridge loan” of about $30,000 from Brenton Clemons, using the theater as collateral. The loan was intended to pay off back taxes and allow France to apply for a larger loan he could use to buy a digital projection system. France didn’t pay back the loan, though, and Clemons sued, claiming the theater should be his. This month, his lawyer filed a motion for partial summary judgment that, if granted, could give Clemons ownership of the Beach Theatre. His lawyer, Charles Gallagher, said Clemons wants to reopen the movie house. “I think he appreciates the specific flavor it had and why it was so special,” Gallagher said. “He understands it’s a historic place.” Hayes said he would file a similar motion, if that’s what France’s family wants. Because ownership of the theater was at issue in his divorce, though, it’s unclear who would make that call. “The theater is obviously up in the air at this point,” Suzanne France said. “There isn’t a single person in this family who knows how to approach this. … But it’s not going to be sold any time soon.” Corey Avenue, which is lined with small boutiques and a bar or two, could be significantly impacted by what happens to the Beach Theatre, which brought in lots of foot traffic to the historic shopping district. “I think it adds credibility to the avenue itself,” said Rob Williams, who owns Swigwam, a bar directly across the street from the theater. Special events helped boost the crowd at Swigwan, according to Williams, who said France’s passion is already being missed – along with the Beach Theatre. “I would love to see someone reopen it as a movie theater or entertainment venue,” he said. France’s sister hopes to see the theater reopen, too. “Our hopes are that the Beach Theatre would carry on just the way Mike liked it,” she said.
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