Courtesy The Polk Theater

Lakeland’s historic Polk Theatre is temporarily closed after a burst pipe flooded the basement.

“Dear Patrons: We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience, but we must cancel our fantastic films for the next five days,” theater management posted to its Facebook page on Wednesday. “We had a pipe burst underground in the Orchestra Center seats section, which caused a flood in the basement ... We are nearly 100 years old and from time to time have a little ache or pain to manage!”

A film on the artist Matisse was postponed on Sunday, as were upcoming films on painters Vermeer and Manet.  “The Bodyguard,” “The Iron Giant,” “A Star is Born,” “Dunkirk” and the Mel Brooks classic “Blazing Saddles” have also been postponed.

“We will know the level of involvement to correct this problem by the first of next week and hopefully will be screening great films as usual,” the post read. “Keep your fingers crossed for us! Thank you for your understanding, patience, and as always, your support.”

They explained that, not only does The Polk have a basement and sub-basement, there is also a third level below that — rare in Florida, where the water table can be high.

The Polk Theatre in 2017. | Kimberly C. Moore, Jazbablog

The Polk Theatre was built in 1928 — about the same time as the Lake Mirror Promenade. The theater seats 1,400, although Lakeland only had about 15,000 residents when it first opened its doors. Lakeland businessman John Melton, who developed Cleveland Heights and the adjacent 18-hole golf course and country club, came up with the idea.

The theater’s charm comes from the ornate “Venetian piazza” architecture, designed by Italian-born immigrant J.E. Casale, surrounding the stage, along with columns on the second-floor mezzanine. The building had one of the first air-conditioning systems in the county and, when it was turned on, the lights in downtown would dim.

The theater's webpage points out that many a Lakeland romance began under the ceiling's twinkling lights. In addition, generations of children have enjoyed Saturday matinees at The Polk.

Famous names have adorned the marquee, including the big bands of Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, and Glenn Miller.

Of course, the one and only Elvis Presley took to the stage in 1956, to the screams of adoring Central Florida fans.

Elvis Presley playing at The Polk Theater in 1956. | Courtesy The Polk Theater

In 1982, the theater was threatened with demolition because of low attendance.

“The Polk was like a fine lady who was forced by economic conditions to pawn some of her jewelry, but she never sacrificed her dignity,” the theater's website states.

A group of Lakeland residents formed a nonprofit group, borrowed money, secured a grant from the state and bought The Polk for $300,000. It continues to operate as a nonprofit.

“The Theatre is supported by revenue from films, its Performing Arts Series, two fundraisers a year, rental income, and memberships,” its website reads.

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to Jazbablog in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at [email protected] or 863-272-9250.

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