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    Pinellas Park theaters open to large crowds

    ParkSide 16 theaters make their debut to rave reviews by cinemagoers and mall businesses.

    By SHARON L. BOND and ANDREW MEACHAM

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 3, 2001


    PINELLAS PARK -- It was 12:50 p.m. Friday when Mark Poor, house manager, knocked on the door of the ticket booth at the ParkSide 16 theater complex and said, "Sell tickets."

    A crowd of several hundred waited outside to enter the new, $15-million movie house that features stadium seating and a state-of-the art sound system.

    Tickets are priced at $1 until the grand opening Friday. Movies showing until then are second-run family pictures such as Apollo 13, Titanic and Chicken Run. Proceeds from ticket sales go to charity.

    Poor's late starting flag wasn't just live drama. Movies were scheduled to start at 1 p.m., but a last-minute switch of screens held up the ticket sales until the changes were recorded in the computer.

    Preparations for the informal or soft opening of ParkSide 16 at ParkSide mall continued almost to the last minute.

    Glitches abounded, from nacho trays of the wrong size to an upward-bound escalator that shut down at 6:20 p.m.

    "Who on the radio knows about napkins that don't fit the napkin holders?" David Phillips, an R/C Theatres vice president, asked into one of the many two-way radios in use. Phillips is in town for the opening but will return to the corporate offices in Baltimore later this month.

    Savannah Harvey was first in line for the 1 p.m. show, there with her grandmother and sister at 11:27 a.m. She was seeing Rugrats in Paris for the third time.

    "We're taking our grandmother so she can see it," explained Savannah, who is 7. Her sister, Devan, is 4.

    "I think it's the nicest theater I've ever been into," grandmother Eleanora Harvey said.

    Donna and Michael Mudaro of Pinellas Park were there to see Meet the Parents. They liked the new theater.

    "We've been for months without movies in Pinellas Park," she said.

    "This looks like Tomorrowland at Disney World," he said. "This techno look is cool, man."

    Mudaro said he hopes the new movies help ParkSide rebound after a decline during which the mall lost half of its tenants.

    "Looks snazzy, don't it?" mused Pinellas Park resident Cindy MacFarlane, 34, after sneaking a peek at the $20,000 movie preview screen that plays constantly above dining tables in the lobby. Her son D.J., 6, slurped an ice cream cone and nodded. "Looks like the new millennium," his mother added.

    ParkSide businesses gave mixed reviews on the benefits of opening-day traffic. Mall operations manager Forrest Massa called the effect "overwhelming," and Bresler's Ice Cream and Yogurt manager Leeann Bethard had recorded 100 customers by 5 p.m. -- compared to 90 by Thursday's 9 p.m. closing.

    Managers at Lee Nails and Waldenbooks said movie traffic was negligible, as did Pradia Bavishi, who owns Almond House. Almond House and Waldenbooks are on the ground level, one floor down from the movie theaters, and Lee Nails sits toward the mall's east end, by JCPenney.

    Perry's Coffee and Tea Co. sits right beside Bresler's, but owner Harry Murphy noted that people who come to dollar movies may not be filling the seats -- or the stores -- once prices return to $7 on Friday.

    "It took 15 years for this mall to go down the tubes," said Murphy, now in his fifth year at the Pinellas Park location. "It's going to take time to bring it back."

    As for those movie prices, matinee customers will pay $5, a discount from the $7 evening price. Seniors who buy a $1 card will pay $5 at any time. The theater will not offer a twilight discount, which retired mechanic Stan Flowers used Thursday at Crossroads when he saw Heartbreakers for $3.75.

    Curious customers Friday sold out early screenings of Space Cowboys, Charlie's Angels, and Meet the Parents. Others did not patronize the movies at all.

    Mike Gundock, 33, killed time and a variety of ghouls with an automatic weapon between his advertising sales appointments. "The House of the Dead" is one of 13 video games in a darkly lit arcade. Other amenities include three birthday party rooms. The rooms, which hold picnic tables and small kitchenettes, will be available free of charge on a first-come, first-serve basis.

    ParkSide now employs about 150 staff and expects to hire as many as 50 more, said Tom Elder, the general manager. Some, such as Kira Howe and Steve Ball, both 18, took the job to stay close to the movie industry. Howe said she won an award for a project she filmed while at Pinellas Park High School. Ball, a Gibbs High School graduate, is an aspiring actor.

    Others, such as beauty-school student Kristin Roth, 20, and roommate Jaime Willis, 19, are there to pay bills. Roth, Willis and Gibbs sophomore Stephanie Waller, 16, were all looking for a place to punch their time clocks Friday. Most jobs start at $5.50 an hour.

    Seniors Estella Blevins and Roberta Reed of Pinellas Park emerged from The Perfect Storm complaining only that the sound was too loud -- a point both were willing to overlook. Blevins pointed to the history of Pinellas Park theaters closing in recent years.

    "We're kind of starved," she said.

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