Orlando's space-age Plaza Theatre debuted at a time marked by tragedy

The story goes that a reporter once wired the actor Cary Grant's agent with the question: "HOW OLD CARY GRANT?"

Grant himself happened upon the telegram and fired back: "OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?"

According to Orlando news reports from almost 50 years ago, Grant also sent a telegram to greet the debut of the city's new luxury movie palace, the Plaza Theatre.

Now known as the Plaza Live, the theater has been in the news again recently with the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra's $3.4 million purchase of the building, which will house the orchestra's chamber-music series, along with touring acts. Performances of the orchestra's major concerts still remain at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre, the Sentinel's Matt Palm reported earlier this month.

Two screens and John Wayne

When the Plaza began as a movie theater in 1963, Grant's telegram of congratulations was on display in the lobby, along with good wishes from other Hollywood luminaries including Jack Lemmon, Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn and John Wayne, who starred in the Plaza's debut movie, "McLintock!''

The comedy Western cast Wayne in a light-hearted mode, battling with Maureen O'Hara, the determined redhead who had the chutzpah to go head to head and heart to heart with him on the big screen.

Wayne was a big star, and the Plaza's arrival was a big deal in Central Florida. Orlando's leading indoor theater, the Beacham, had been built in the 1920s. The Plaza was the area's first "modern" movie palace, and its rooftop sign had a space-age look to prove it.

The theater boasted two screens — multiplex movie theaters lay in the future — and could accommodate "such processes as Cinerama, Todd-A-O and Panavision," according to news reports.

Todd-A-O was the creation of movie producer Mike Todd, more remembered these days for his marriage to Elizabeth Taylor.

The Plaza's technological innovations were impressive, as were its two auditoriums, but its seating really captured media attention.

"A highlight of the theater is its rocking-chair seats, providing living-room comfort," the Orlando Sentinel noted at the theater's debut. The Plaza was the first rocking-chair theater not only in Florida but in the South, ads for the theater proclaimed.

A link to national history

The theater's debut, Nov. 20, 1963, was a Wednesday. Just two days later, Friday, Nov. 22, President John Kennedy lay dying in the back of a convertible in Dallas, and it felt as though the world — and the space-age spirit of progress that helped shape the Plaza — would never be quite the same.

But "the rocking-chair theater" served audiences well through the decades, first as a movie palace and in recent years as a venue for a variety of touring musical performances and shows.

When the Plaza began, it was seen as an adjunct to the original Colonial Plaza shopping center and mall, where the Jordan Marsh department store opened about a year before, in October 1962, bringing big-city retail glamour to Central Florida.

Now the Plaza's location on Bumby Avenue near East Robinson Street is often described as being in the Milk District (inspired by the longtime T.G. Lee Dairy plant nearby on Bumby).

The theater's new owner, the Philharmonic, has announced plans for extensive renovations to the building but will keep the Plaza's iconic sign, designated an Orlando city landmark.

Seeking Elvis in Florida

A recent Flashback about DeBary resident Ardys Bell Clawson's backstage meeting with a young Elvis Presley in 1955 brings word from journalist and author Bob Kealing that his latest project focuses on Presley in Florida in the years 1955 to 1961— a period when Elvis not only performed in the state but also filmed the movie "Follow That Dream" in Florida.

Kealing's research and earlier books have opened doors to knowledge about Jack Kerouac in Florida, Tupperware icon Brownie Wise, and the influential singer and songwriter Gram Parsons. Now Kealing is seeking information about early Florida encounters with the king of rock and roll. Write him at kerouacinflorida@hotmail.com.

Joy Wallace Dickinson can be reached at jwdickinson@earthlink.net or by good old-fashioned letter at the Sentinel, 633 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, FL 32801.





Look for this special section in your
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