Jerry Williams has lived in Green Cove Springs for all 80 years of her life. She recalls working at the Clay Theatre in 1947 as an usher, when the city was a naval hub and teemed with tourists.
“Green Cove was really booming then,” Williams said. “It was a big deal.”
The Clay Theatre is a historic building; it opened in 1916 as the Palace Opera House. In 1936, it was renamed and restructured into a film theater. Williams said Clay Theatre was so busy in the 1950s that another movie house, the Cove Theatre, was built next door to accommodate an influx of customers.
Many customers, she said, were sailors stationed at Lee Field Naval Air Station. Williams said Walnut Street was flooded with taxis shuttling sailors and pedestrians around the city’s many restaurants and bars, and especially to the theaters. She said the theaters would play two to three blockbusters a night and were quite busy during weekends. Despite her city’s changes, Williams said the Clay Theatre today looks very much like it did more than 60 years ago.
Clay Theatre had its grand reopening in September, after being closed since 2008. Owners and brothers John and Charlie Watzke are third-generation film projectionists from New Orleans, whose goal is to reinvigorate the nightlife of Green Cove Springs by opening the quaint, two-story structure.
The single-ticket booth looks out across Walnut Street to City Hall, where Williams served as the town’s first woman mayor for 18 years. The Cove Theatre is now a vacant lot adjacent to the Clay Theatre and near NAS, which Williams said was once home to more than 500 ships. It’s now a Reynolds Industrial Park site.
The grand public reopening saw residents lining up to get their tickets for the premiere of Ole Bornedal’s horror film “The Possession” and Peter Hedges’ “The Odd Life of Timothy Green.” John Watzke said the business will be family-oriented and will try to show as many G, PG and PG-13 movies as possible.
More than a month after the successful grand opening, John said business was going slow, and residents did not seem to be warming up to the theater as much as he had anticipated.
Williams said the nightlife is not how it was when she was a teenager, but there are still lots of visitors to the historic sulfur springs. “The city is fortunate enough to be able to accommodate its tourists,” Williams said.
Williams lives close to the City Pier overlooking the St. Johns River, just to the east of Clay Theatre. She said the theater’s family-friendly atmosphere is important to her, and she feels bringing it back is the right thing to do.
Younger residents, including students from Green Cove Springs Junior High, were in line getting tickets an hour before the shows started for the grand opening.
Jennifer Esposito, 12, said she lives on Fleming Island and was looking forward to seeing “The Possession.” She said she remembers going with her parents to the theater before it closed. Seventh-graders Serena White, 13, and Kyle Moody, 12, said they didn’t even know about the theater until rumors of its reopening, but were anxious to see the inside.
Green Cove Springs is no stranger to the film industry. Charlie Watzke said three movies were partially filmed in the city, including “Creature from the Black Lagoon” which premiered in 1954, the cult-classic “Zaat” filmed in 1972 and, more recently, “The General’s Daughter,” which premiered in 1999.
The Watzke brothers operate the business with friend and co-owner Chad Edwards, who said the nostalgia of the 96-year-old building is what drew them. The original balcony was remodeled in 1992 and converted into another screen. The theater features a full-sized, 228-seat screening room downstairs and a smaller, 78-seat screening area upstairs. The two screens are important when booking films, because the older film can be moved to the smaller screen to make room for more revenue from new releases, John said. The main lobby is no bigger than an average living room, but the fully stocked concession stand offers prices that are more reasonable than mainstream theater venues. Tickets are $4.50 for children and $6 for adults. “Lowest prices in the county,” John said.
John said his brother discovered the theater in 1999 and said it needed renovation, like new carpet and paint. He said Bill Gause, the building’s former owner, renovated the building back in 2002 and put almost $2 million into it. “He basically rebuilt it,” John said.
Charlie said he wished they could have connected a power cord from next door’s City Hall to the stopped clock at the top of the theater, in homage to 1985’s “Back to the Future.” However, there was not enough time as the building, which sat empty for four years, had to be cleaned from top to bottom before the premiere.
This is not the brothers’ induction into the movie theater business. The Watzke brothers were raised in New Orleans, where their father and grandfather were both film projectionists.
John said his grandfather, Charles Sr., started as a projectionist at age 12, for 25 cents a day, to help support his family. John’s father, Charles Jr., began work as a projectionist in 1939, then taught John and Charlie how to operate the projection equipment at an early age. “As soon as we were tall enough to reach the projector,” John said, “we were able to run it.”
Charlie moved to Brevard County in 1985 and bought his first movie theater, Maxi’s Cinema Pub, in 1992. He said the term “pub” took away a lot of family business, so the name was changed to Maxi’s Family Cinema. In July 2011, he opened the Ocala Drive-In Theater. Charlie said that venue was also brought back from a four-year hiatus and is doing steady business. The brothers said that by this time next year, they hope to own even more film-related businesses, including theaters.
Charlie’s son, Chuck, is a fourth-generation film projectionist. He works alongside his father and uncle, and helped organize the film for the theater’s opening. Chuck also has a son, 18-month-old James, whom Charlie hopes will learn the business, too. John said his grandson, 11-year-old Drake, is already learning how to operate the projector as the family’s fifth-generation film projectionist.
The nightlife in Green Cove Springs is slow, but John hopes the theater draws more people to the downtown area. When a theater opens up in a small town, it anchors the nightlife, and he said the Clay Theatre will be no exception.
Lindsey Kraus, 29, is a former resident of Green Cove Springs. She lives in Jacksonville now but said she remembers going to the theater with her school and watching a lot of children’s movies. She said there wasn’t much to do in Green Cove Springs and said the theater would be successful if it were supported by the sparse retail options. She said a beer and wine license might also attract a larger crowd.
“It’s a beautiful area for families,” Kraus said. “I think the reopening will be great to revitalize Green Cove Springs.”