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Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Dead again: Circumstances darken Home Theatre

ZEPHYRHILLS — About the latest incarnation of the officially historic movie house in downtown Zephyrhills, let us begin by saying this: It was (mostly) fun while it lasted.

Married hairstylists Felicia Richards and Deano Dotson learned that running the Home Theatre was a quick and reliable way for newcomers to befriend a broad and diverse cross-section of the local population. Paul Bathrick, a near-native and Ruby Tuesday cook who imagined adulthood had clogged his creativity like cold grease in plumbing, felt his inventive juices flow again. And, in his role as host of the Friday Fright, otherwise mild-mannered Wal-Mart employee Roger Boyes not only exhaled a third dimension into Dr. Xombie, his YouTube-haunting, crypt-keeping alter-ego, he learned the unscripted wonders of playing to a live audience.

“It was great,” says Rikki Gardlock, 17, who sometimes bartered theater work for a cut-and-color at Felicia and Deano’s BeautyRadio.com salon next door. “I’m going to miss it.”

Yes, alas (a melancholy not universally held, as we shall see), we are already talking about the theater in the past tense because, after must-see events scheduled tonight and Saturday, the house is going dark. Again.

A stack of circumstances big enough to hide the Frankenstein monster traces, inevitably, to the ugly divorce of the building’s owner. Larry Rutan, who also owns the Zephyrhills Cinema 10 on Gall Boulevard, wound up on the wrong side of the division of marital assets to such an extent that he has become a warrior against lifetime alimony. (Search YouTube for “Larry Rutan Equal Justice for All.”)

To meet his burden, Rutan told Richards and Dotson, he is eager to sell the building, which includes the theater and the two small shops flanking it on the ground floor, plus a couple of second-story apartments. “Two months ago he stopped by,” Dotson says, “and you could see the desperation in his eyes.”

Here, then, is a main-street consequence of Gov. Rick Scott having vetoed the bill passed by the Legislature last spring that would have put a coda on Rutan’s endless obligation. “We’re on month-to-month lease,” Dotson says, “and we just couldn’t go on with the uncertainty.”

About that time, scouting more permanent opportunities, the couple spotted a double rainbow — “The brightest one we’d ever seen,” Richards said — framing the old Dice’s ice cream soda shop.

“We said, ‘This is it,’ ” Dotson said. “I know that makes us sound crazy.”

But no crazier than trying to turn around a dilapidated movie house.

Their decision to move also sealed the Home Theatre’s fate. Whatever else you might say about the movie house — “We’ve done a lot to it,” amounting to thousands of dollars out of pocket, Richards said, “and when you go in there it still looks like it’s in bad shape” — it had the charm of propinquity. Now it will lack even that.

Add the uncertainty of a sudden sale, Dotson says, “and it just didn’t make sense for us to keep pouring our efforts into it.”

Sitting with self-described freelance artist Jade Troy on the semicircular block bench that frames the theater’s entrance, Gardlock, a GED aspirant and Burger King employee who could pass for Amy Poehler’s prettier sister, rehearses a familiar theme: the town’s slim menu of activities for teens on tight budgets.

“But this,” she says, nodding toward the theater, “was for us.”

And that was a problem, says David Nelson, 32, owner of the one-man barbershop across the ticket booth plaza from BeautyRadio. On Fright Night Fridays, Nelson says, movie fans made up like extras from “The Walking Dead” would start arriving about lunchtime, and by midafternoon the plaza could pass for a zombie tailgate party.

“A lot of my customers are senior citizens, and they were being scared off,” Nelson says. “They weren’t going to wade through that.”

Worse, Nelson said, was the July night they screened “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” the cult musical that inspires even happily heterosexual guys to flaunt their inner transsexual cross-dresser. It wasn’t just the old shaggy heads refusing to run the gantlet of fellows rocking Dr. Frank-N-Furter in fishnet tights and bustiers, it was the guy who kept blowing kisses Nelson’s way.

The barber complained to the hairdresser. “This guy’s really pushing my buttons!” Nelson griped. “Tell him to cut it out.” Dotson shrugged him off. Said Nelson, “He told me if it was him the guy was blowing kisses at, he’d be flattered. Well, that’s not me.”

Nelson gets no support from Tony Delgado, 50, a search-engine optimizer who moved from New York to be near his mom last year and is a barbershop habitue. “These kids aren’t weird, not compared to where I’m from,” Delgado said. “And they’re nice; at least you can have a conversation with them.”

These days, they’re talking mostly about the latest death of the Zephyrhills Home Theatre, and what might have been — could have been — if only it had the right something.

“What we need,” Bathrick said, “is a benefactor.”

Right. Just so.

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