A Look Back
The Arcade Theater

by T.M. Javobs

IN 1915 THE TOWN OF FORT MYERS was bustling with winter residents, merchants, and laborers constructing a new courthouse. Entrepreneur Harvie Heitman was busy building what he felt the town needed — a theater. He always had an interest in the performing arts. In the early 1890s he was a member of the Fort Myers Dramatic Society and portrayed

Dr. Slater in the five act drama ‘The Social Class.’

Heitman, along with his younger brother Gilmer built the Arcade Theater on First Street between Heitman’s Clothing Company and the Bradford Hotel. The Arcade originally hosted vaudeville, including magic acts, local talent nights, and plays. People sometimes came by boat, docking at Bay Street to attend shows in the 500-seat theater.

Stars that graced the stage at the Arcade were Emmet Miller and his Georgia Crackers (jazz musicians), Little Jack Little (composer, singer, and actor), and the Major Bowes Amateur Hour (radio program, later television).

Within a short time, vaudeville was on the way out and the theater began to show “moving pictures” or silent films, then movies. On February 5, 1917, the Arcade Theater opened as a movie theater to a large crowd. It had a most “auspicious opening,” reported the paper. The Arcade was labeled “cozy and well arranged as an [sic] moving picture house in the state.” It featured a stage for traveling shows, dressing rooms to each side, a large picture screen, four-hundred seats, “splendid ventilation,” and rose-colored curtains. The theater was also equipped with two rear exits and the usual front entrance and could be emptied within moments.

Manager Hendry traveled around the states of Florida and Georgia visiting various theaters in April of 1917, including Jacksonville, Lake City, and Atlanta. He then placed an advertisement in the paper stating that he “sincerely wishes that every Man, Woman, and Child in Fort Myers could visit Theaters in Jacksonville, Atlanta and other cities. Then you’d know that the Arcade and its Programs stand supreme, a credit to our city, a monument to its builders.”

He was also quick to make improvements to the theater and keep up with the times. Shortly after opening day, he installed a “mercury arch filter” in the projection room and also brought in a pipe organ. Due to its location, the building continually flooded during tropical storms and hurricanes.

The theater was slightly remodeled in the 1920s with “glazed bricks and tile and a heavy glass roof.” The minor renovations also added numerous booths and office space. In late 1920, Manager Hendry brought to the theater Elsie Ferguson’s first motion picture, “Barbary Sheep.” He promised theatergoers that you “will not be disappointed.” The ten to twenty-five cent admission included a raffle ticket, where prizes ranged from a free movie ticket to a refrigerator.

By the 1930s the theater was in much need of being repaired. The Heitman Estate put up $100,000 for repairs and renovation, which included removing the stage, new seats, indoor restrooms, a 15x19 screen, air conditioning, and wall-to-wall carpeting. The grand reopening took place in late December, and attending the event was Florida Heitman, Harvie Heitman’s widow. The Arcade Theater quickly became known as “Southwest Florida’s Finest and Most Modern Theatre.”

Eventually, movies fell to the way side at the Arcade as cinemaplexs began to open in the area.

By 1977, the theatre was used by the Edison Players, the Cape Coral Players, the Fort Myers Beach Players, and the Actors Repertory Theatre. Two years later, the theatre was purchased by Bill Smith, long-time resident and local businessman, who tried to reestablish it as a movie house and asked the four troupes to leave. But the theater closed again in July of 1980 and suffered from neglect. Another renovation was completed, this time with a wall dividing the 520-seat house in half, making a twin theater. But it only remained open until 1984.
A benefit was held to aid in the restoration of the building in 1991. International ballet star and Fort Myers resident Mikail Baryshnikov lent his name and talent for the cause.

Seven years later, the city gave the Arcade Theatre to the Florida Repertory Theatre. Under the guidance of Artistic Director Robert Cacioppo, the theater flourished and became a vital part of the downtown redevelopment and a highlight for residents of Fort Myers. Of all the movie houses that were present during the last century, only the Arcade is left standing. •

T. M. Jacobs is a freelance writer living in Fort Myers. He is the editor of Patriots of the American Revolution magazine and is the author of H. E. Heitman An Early Entrepreneur of Fort Myers Florida. He is also a member of the Gulf Coast Writers Association and the Caloosa Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution. Please visit his website at www.tmjacobs.com.

from the May-June 2011 issue

photograph by
Andrew Morris
then and now