Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Lake Worth History - Playhouse - The "Oakley" Theater

This is a re-post of a story that I put on the blog last October. It has a little bit of a Halloween ring to it, but in honor of the debate location tonight, I thought it was worth bringing it forward.


Hello my Friends,

John Cutrone here, from Convivio Bookworks in Lake Worth, Florida. It's Halloween tomorrow: All Hallow's Eve, a night given to spirited imagination in orange pumpkin glow, and to tales of haunted houses, haunted roads, haunted fields. Lake Worth, like any old town worth its salt, has its share of haunted places. Downtown on Lake Avenue, for instance, there is the Lake Worth Playhouse, which was opened in 1924 as the Oakley Theater by the two Oakley brothers, Lucien and Clarence. It was, back then, a movie palace and Vaudeville theater, complete with a $10,000 Wurlitzer pipe organ. Opening night included a performance by a five-piece orchestra that came all the way up from Fort Lauderdale and dancers from the Grace Thomas School of Dancing. It was an altogether elegant opening for an elegant theater in a young and prosperous town in the midst of the jazz-age flapper boom that was the Roaring 20s in America.

Fortunes soon reversed, though, and Lake Worth suffered a double blow during the Great Depression, for it was but a year before the market crashed in '29 that the town was devastated by the Great Hurricane of 1928, which tore the roof off the Oakley. Lucien and Clarence rebuilt the theater, even grander than before, but by 1931 they found themselves in dire financial circumstances, and a desperate Lucien took his own life on June 30th of that year. And Clarence, strangely enough, died suddenly one year to the day of his brother's death, on June 30th, 1932.

It is, they say, the ghosts of Lucien and Clarence that haunt the theater, though I've never seen them myself. Footsteps are heard from the attic, stage props are mysteriously hidden, and the photographs of actors that hang in the lobby are often found turned around so they face the wall. And late at night, when the theater is empty, staff who are cleaning up shop after a performance often hear faint applause as they leave. And when they do, they make sure to bid a good night to the Brothers Oakley.

There aren't many Luciens and Clarences nowadays, but there is Clarence the Bridgekeeper: Clarence Knowles, who has worked the night shift at the Lake Worth Bridge for some fifteen or twenty years, and looking forward to retirement for most of them. Five nights a week he spends up there in that little room at the top of the drawbridge that crosses the lagoon, alone with a radio and a 13" TV that picks up only two stations.

Clarence married into a family that can trace its roots back to Samuel and Fannie James, two freed slaves from Georgia who were the first to settle in what would become Lake Worth. They came south in 1883, stopped here where the lagoon was wide and the fishing good, laid claim to the land, and called the place Jewell. More settlers came to the area, and Fannie became Jewell's first and only postmistress in 1889. It was a position she spent the next fourteen years trying to resign, but the United States Post Office refused to accept her resignation. Not that the job was all that difficult--there were but a handful of souls here on the South Florida frontier in those days. But there were plenty of things to tend to without having to wait on the irregular arrival of a mail boat, and one day in 1903, Fannie apparently reached a crucial breaking point, and she up and dumped the mail into the lagoon. This pretty much ended her postal career, as well as postal service for Jewell, whose residents now had to go get their mail in Lantana, the next town south.

It is Clarence who swears the ghost of his wife's great great great aunt Fannie comes to visit him some nights at the bridge keeper's booth up at the top of the bridge. He says she comes in like a mist from under the door, and before he knows it, there is nothing about him but a dense impenetrable fog. All sense of time and space is lost, and he can barely see his hand in front of his face, Clarence says.

When the fog in the booth clears, he finds the contents of the wastepaper basket dumped out on the floor, and very often a boat in the lagoon, sounding its horn, waiting for him to open the span. Truth is, though, over the years, Clarence has been known to steal forty winks every now and then during his dark and quiet shift, and so not a lot of folks around here give much credit to his story, not even his wife Retta.

Over at the Lake Worth Playhouse, though, if you look up at the beams that support the ceiling, and if you can spot the O and the T that are stenciled there, it is very easy to be transported back to the Oakley Theater and its opening night and to believe that every story is true. This is a large part of what is so important about Halloween. Every now and then, we get to be not so logical, not so scientific. Every now and then, we get to wonder if there's something more going on around us, and we realize it's okay to believe what, perhaps, we normally would not.

Happy Halloween.

"Thank you, and write when you can."
Convivio Bookworks
John Cutrone & Seth Thompson, proprietors
Inspired goods from around the globe and close to home...
Books and broadsides, made by hand in Lake Worth, Florida.

From the Lake Worth Playhouse website:

History of the
Lake Worth Playhouse

The Lake Worth Playhouse occupies the former Oakley Theatre, the oldest building on the Register of the Art Deco Society of Palm Beach County.

The original structure was built in the Mediterranean Revival style so prevalent in this area at the time, but later modified to Art Deco. The building was constructed by brothers Lucien and Clarence Oakley, who came here from Illinois on the wave of a movie mania sweeping the country in the early 1920’s with the dream of building a movie palace and vaudeville house. The original building permit was secured in April 1924 and costs were projected to be $46,000, but eventually ran way over budget. The theatre first opened its doors on November 3, 1924 with local newspapers proudly touting its $150,000 cost – indeed a very high price at the start of the Depression. If you look up at the pecky cypress beams supporting the ceiling you will still see the initials “O” and “T” that stand for Oakley Theatre stenciled there.

Opening night patrons were treated to a showing of a silent movie based on the Broadway play “Welcome Stranger”. The new $10,000 Wurlitzer pipe organ (with built-in piano) was heard in concert for the first time that night and a five-piece orchestra from Ft. Lauderdale played for the two performances. Also appearing on stage at this time were students of the Grace A. Thomas School of Dancing who performed dances with evocative names such as “High Hats”, “The Jazz Dancers ”, and “Sweethearts”.

September 16, 1928 – a devastating hurricane ripped through the area, destroying almost everything in its path. The Oakley Theatre was virtually demolished, but the brothers wouldn’t let go of their dream and plans were soon made to rebuild. The Lake Worth Herald proudly reported that the theatre would re-open on January 10, 1929. New sound and projection equipment was installed in the fall of 1929. When the full weight of the Depression struck South Florida, the Oakley brothers lost ownership of the theatre. Over the ensuing years the theatre changed names and ownership many times, showing art films, legitimate films and later, blue movies. Finally, it was derelict and shut down.

The Lake Worth Playhouse was incorporated on December 1, 1953 by a representative group of Lake Worth citizens, including Richard Sorgini, Sr., who still practices law in Lake Worth and continues to support the Playhouse. The earliest seasons featured four productions a year in the un-air-conditioned third floor auditorium of the old Lake Worth City Hall, which was reached by climbing three long flights of stairs. Yet many people came out to support the organization and most of the performances were sold out. The first play produced by the fledgling organization was “springtime for Henry”. Occasionally productions were also staged at Palm Beach Community College. The beloved Watson B. Duncan, Chairman of the Theatre Department at the college, served on the Board of Directors during the fledgling years and it was at the latter location that his pupil Burt Reynolds appeared in several productions.

In October of 1975 the Lake Worth Playhouse purchased the Oakley Theatre building for $60,000 and began much-needed renovations with an additional $15,000 Bicentennial grant. The first official production of the Lake Worth Playhouse in its new home was “The Last of Mrs. Lincoln”, chosen to fulfill stipulations of the federal Bicentennial grant. Currently the organization employs a staff of ten and offers a season of traditional musicals and plays on the main stage; a vibrant Education Program with classes for adults and children of all ages; the International Cultural Exchange Program; extensive community outreach and multicultural programming; The LakeWorth Playhouse Playwrights’ Workshop; a variety of cultural collaborations with other arts groups such as the Uptown Poetry Slam, Street Painting Festival, Ballet Folklorico Bolivia, Finn Fest, Evenings on the Avenue, jazz concerts, special events and much, much more.