Owners stage tour to solicit ideas for theater
By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET
© St. Petersburg Times,
INVERNESS -- As a group of community leaders ducked into the old Valerie Theater during Friday's driving rain, one thing quickly became apparent: Their raincoats and umbrellas would be needed inside the 1926 movie hall, too.
The once-landmark theater across from the historic courthouse has fallen into disrepair since its last showing of The Untouchables in 1987. Holes in the wooden beam roof have allowed the elements -- most recently, rain from Tropical Storm Gabrielle -- to pour in.
Pale green mold grows on the whitewashed brick walls. The wooden balcony, where black patrons sat in the days before desegregation, has rotted through. Standing rainwater has collected like a moat around the raised stage.
"If you stick to the side aisles, you can pretty much stay out of the downpour," historic preservationist Chad Perry said.
Perry's parents, downtown merchants Winston and Andrea Perry, bought the Valerie Theater and the adjoining office building in December for $120,000, according to property appraiser's records.
But the couple is still trying to decide on the best use for the abandoned movie hall.
After allowing about a dozen people to walk through the theater Friday, the Perrys hosted a three-hour brainstorming session, or charrette, to gather ideas on the Valerie's next incarnation.
Suggestions included legal offices, an antique mall, a performing arts theater and a cinema brew pub that would show movies for $1.
Offices would be the most financially sound venture, but would not bring new people to shop in other downtown stores, Andrea Perry said. A performance theater could draw crowds that would visit the neighboring boutiques and restaurants, but it might struggle to break even as a business.
Andrea Perry suggested a blend of several uses: Move her downtown shop, Ritzy Rags & Glitzy Jewels, to part of the ground floor, along with another boutique or cafe. Build a second floor of leased office space in the cavernous building. For ambience, leave a couple of rows of the old movie seats and a running screen showing classic films.
Others at the forum, including members of the Citrus County Historical Society, the tourism and economic development councils, and a few elected officials, applauded the idea.
The Perrys are still weighing their options, however. They may do some minimal repairs and advertise the entire building for some kind of leased-space project.
Whatever form the Valerie takes next, the Perrys want to be sure they have a sound business plan in place before sinking an estimated $250,000 to $300,000 to restore the building.
"My wife is firmly convinced that I'm crazy," Winston Perry told the group. "When you walk into it and look at it, that gives some credence to it."
Except for the theater's four brick walls, little remains of the original movie house. The last owner stripped away the velour curtains and cleared out the folding movie seats, which now sit in a pile behind the stage.
Most of those preparations were made in the late 1980s to turn the movie hall into an office supply store. But when Ocala businessman David Skipper decided to put his store on State Road 44 instead, the Valerie remained vacant.
Out of concern for passing pedestrians, the crumbling marquee came down in 1996. Aside from the piles of dissembled seats from the late 1940s or early 1950s, the theater has just one relic from its heyday: a pair of cast-iron, old-fashioned movie projector stands.
So much of the theater has been stripped or changed that it would not qualify for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, Chad Perry said.
As an integral piece of the city's history during the past 75 years, however, Winston Perry said, the building should be saved.
"If the walls could talk, they could tell some pretty interesting stories," he said.
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