Lake Worth, Florida is a place that hides much of its exotic history behind modest taco stands, assorted crowd-pleasing restaurants and small souvenir shops. Once a playground for turn of the century millionaire names like Astor, Vanderbilt, and the founder/entrepreneur of Palm Beach himself, Henry Flagler, Lake Worth provided a certain tropical ambience in conjunction with a wondrous beach and luxurious hotels, such as The Royal Poinciana and El Verano, the latter a hotel strategically located right on the water before it was torn down in 2005, after going through many changes in its administration.
Lake Worth’s popular historic district, also known as “downtown Lake Worth”, is regarded by many as an emblematic spot within the city, where quaint buildings and houses can be seen, some of them bravely struggling against the strain of time and decay. Elegantly standing on Lake Avenue, the Lakeworth Playhouse was once the site of the Oakley Theater, the oldest occupied building registered in the Art Deco Society of Palm Beach County, was built by Lucien and Clarence Oakley, who made of the Oakley the area’s first movie theater and vaudeville house. Opened in 1924 with the astronomical cost of $150.000, the Oakley Theater boasted an equally pricey Wurlitzer pipe organ, which accompanied the screening of silent films and orchestral performances. Tragically, the Oakley was savagely destroyed in 1928 by a hurricane, but this did not deter the brothers who rebuilt the opulent theater, only to lose it a few years later due to economic hardships brought on by The Great Depression. One of the Oakley brothers, Lucien committed suicide in his residence a few blocks away from the theater, unable to cope with the heartbreaking reality of his financial losses. It is rumored that his ghost mournfully haunts the premises of his once beloved theater.
Image of The Oakley Theater circa 1920/Photograph by Adriana Delgado
The Oakley managed to stay afloat as a venue for certain mainstream films, “blue” movies, and even adult only features. After a few struggling years it was shut down for good, but a stroke of luck was to save the aging movie theater from the fate of the wrecking ball. In 1975, the Lake Worth Playhouse purchased the Oakley Theater as the new home for its original productions, beginning a new era for the Oakley. While the Playhouse now receives certain attention from residents and theatergoers, a stout slightly grayish building with a small and unpretentious marquee next door, goes by many times unnoticed. The Stonzek Theater was incorporated to the Playhouse in 1995 as a movie venue for independent and foreign films, at times referred to as “art house”.
The Lakeworth Playhouse with the Stonzek Theater next door/Photo by Adriana Delgado
Charlie Birnbaum has been the manager for the Stonzek since 2010, and is responsible, among many things, for booking the films that screen there on a weekly basis. “I started here because when I moved to Lake Worth, I was living around the corner on J Street. I walked past all the time, and I decided to stop by and see if they needed help” Birnbaum says when asked how he became involved with the Playhouse and the Stonzek Theater. “I got hired as a projectionist, and later inherited the manager position at the Stonzek”. Birnbaum remembers that the Stonzek was in its beginnings, used as black box theater for children’s plays and some experimental theater. This however was not successful, and the administration of the Lakeworth Playhouse decided to try out the Stonzek as a movie theater, which ironically, was the role that the Playhouse occupied in the 1920’s.
The Playhouse’s adopted sister, the Stonzek Theater/Photo by Adriana Delgado
Speaking of the Stonzek’s association with Emerging Cinemas (now called Emerging Pictures), a self-described “all digital Film and Alternate content network of theaters in the United States”, Birnbaum explains that while the contract lasted, films were shown through the Emerging Cinemas platform by uploading them from a PC located in New York and those films would be screened in all their affiliated theaters. “We might have picked five percent of our own content in those days. We were however after a while, unable to come to an agreement on the terms of the contract, so we dumped them. That’s when we decided to go out on our own.”
Birnbaum freely admits that many of the films screened at the Stonzek, form part of his own indulgence, hoping that the public will go along with the ones he decides are the best. “If left to my own devices, the films would be very dark and bleak” he admits “But I try to vary the genres. I don’t want to show just Goddard movies. I try to book comedies, westerns, and even ventured a couple of times into vampire movies. I have directors for whom I feel tremendous respect for, like Alain Resnais or David Cronenberg. Even if a particular movie they made is not very good, I still show it. It’s as if Picasso showed a mediocre new painting, you’re not gonna turn your nose up at it. It’s Picasso! Of course you’re gonna see it!” He confesses further confusion when booking films particularly for the younger crowds. “The audience that comes here is primarily older. I would like to get a younger audience, but they don’t seem interested in the films we show and I don’t really quite know how to reach them. Sometimes the movies that I think will be successful, only two people show up, and vice versa. So it’s still a mystery to me what films young people want to see”.
Birnbaum is candid and passionate when he speaks of movies. He was a college student in the craze of the American and French New Wave, when directors like Jean-Luc Goddard and Francois Truffaut were emerging as innovative creators of a new form of cinema. He remembers speaking some years ago to a young filmmaker that he met at PBIFF (Palm Beach International Film Festival), and being rendered speechless when the young man didn’t know who John Ford was. “How can you pick up a movie camera, and make movies and not know who John Ford is? Birnbaum says. “I was amazed”.
Charlie Birnbaum in his cinematic cave of dreams/Photo by Adriana Delgado
He remembers that as a philosophy student at Columbia University in 1969, he used to screen a wide variety of classic films there like D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. “There was an auditorium full of students watching this film. I remember that scene in the film when the white girl is being held captive by the blacks and the alleged good guys are coming to the rescue, the horses pounding down the road, dust and all that, people started to applaud at this scene. And maybe ten of fifteen seconds into it, people went completely silent because they realized they were applauding for the Ku Klux Klan. But Griffith had defined that kind of cinematic language, knowing that with the pounding of the horse’s hoofs, the way he cut it, it was the good guys coming to the rescue. And everyone understood that”. Birnbaum was also a screener for New Line Cinema at the time, and occasionally regrets not accepting a job that he was offered at the time. “I would have been the number six guy for New Line Cinema if I had said yes. But I went to Philosophy school instead. What a mistake!” he says with a combination of humor and melancholy. “But I watched a ton of movies in college. In those days you could go to 42nd street at eight o’clock in the morning, where a triple feature cost 85 cents; all mailmen and drunks in the theater at that hour. But I liked it”.
Birnbaum takes pride in the fact that the Stonzek shows films that you cannot get in every theater. “We can’t show The Fast And The Furious here. It would depict the purpose of the movies we show”. He does show surprise at times when people come from miles away to see a film at the Stonzek. “Once I had people here from Tallahassee for a movie because we were the only ones showing it in the whole state. So people do come if a particular film interests them. I just sometimes don’t know which film is going to evoke that interest”.
Talking to Birnbaum is an education in film and cinematic history. He serves his purpose as a theater manager with admirable altruism that only a real cinephile can display. For the last five years, the Stonzek has hosted the L-Dub Film Festival, a small independent film festival that includes features, shorts and documentaries. When talking about the future of the Stonzek, his only concern is to get better chairs. “I would love to purchase DCP equipment so I could bring films that I can’t get right now from certain distributors like Sony, but I don’t have the $70.000 that DCP costs, and I don’t even know if it’s worth it considering how things are changing with VOD, particularly Netflix and Hulu.
Birnbaum is not wrong. According to the Sony homepage, a Lumen 4K projector can go as high as $150.000. For a theater like the Stonzek, who relies mostly on local patronage and a virtually non-existent promotional budget, it means having to miss out on potential money making films distributed by Sony Pictures Classics or Focus Features. However, the Stonzek theater manager is confident that the theater will continue to draw in people who march to the beat of a different cinematic drum. As Birnbaum himself points out: “What I would really like to see is this place in five years, still dedicated to movies of note that show originality, spirit, and a cinematic eye. That’s really all I want” Amen to that.