Families living in SweetBay are just a short drive from a Panama City hidden gem: the historic Martin Theatre.
The city was constructing a theatre. It was 1936 and, on Harrison Avenue, you could hear the evidence. From the rooftop, work crews yelled down to the men on the ground, and the men on the ground hollered back at the men on the roof. Tools passed from one to another and hammers made their music. Dust rose and fell, settling in the crevices of calloused hands.
All of this labor and countless dollars spent to raise a building, known today as Martin Theatre, with a single job: to entertain the people of Panama City, Florida. Quite a feat, given that 1936 marked a period in U.S. history when the Great Depression was bearing down hard on every state in the union. When the theatre opened, the U.S. had already muddled through nearly seven years of economic trauma, with several years yet to go.
Then, there’s the story of the theatre’s long survival. After a renovation in 1950, a few dark years of vacancy and decay followed in the 1970s. Ultimately, the theatre reclaimed its glory when it went through a second major renovation and was reopened in the 1990s by the Panama City Downtown Improvement Board.
Today, Martin Theatre continues to serve Panama City; and it does so with regal panache. The theatre is profiled in several art deco, coffee table books, and is featured on the cover of “Tickets to Paradise: American Movie Theatres and How We Had Fun.” Its facade is constructed of Vulcan Glass, shipped in from Birmingham, Alabama, and the historic theatre just so happens to be a short drive — less than 5 miles southeast — from the city’s SweetBay community.
Judging by Martin Theatre’s colors, the building offers just the right look for a coastal downtown theatre, with touches of sea green exterior sharing space with rust red and orange. The colors are presented in bold geometric patterns, divided by a soothing and balancing hue, somewhere in the neighborhood of eggshell or maybe custard.
The Golden Age of Hollywood
Martin Theatre opened in the middle of Hollywood’s Golden Age, which is typically considered a time spanning from the 1910s to the 1960s. According to the venue’s website, a number of Old Hollywood celebrities have made appearances at the theatre from Clark Gable and Constance Bennett to Michael O’Shea, William Boyd and Bill Elliott.
Most, even the younger generations, recognize Clark Gable for his turn in Gone with the Wind, which premiered in 1939, just three years after the Martin Theatre was built. But the other actors who visited Panama City’s theatre, household names for fans of early cinema, have their own rich stories and famed notoriety too. Constance Bennett was one of Hollywood’s most recognized stars during the 1920 and 1930s. In the early 30s, she was the highest-paid actress in film. She’s best known for her portrayal of society women in movies like What Price Hollywood?, Bed of Roses and Topper.
As for Bill Elliott, best known as Wild Bill Elliott, he played rugged, western heroes. The son of a Missouri cattle broker, Elliott is known for his role in the Red Ryder series of films. Michael O’Shea’s career spanned across decades, from the 1940s through the 1960s, in film and television, as well as on Broadway. And finally William Boyd, who played Red Connors in Hopalong Cassidy, gained lasting fame in the Western film genre.
Martin Theatre in the 21st Century
Today, Martin Theatre’s executive director Barbara McMinis is the central figure who makes things happen at this historic venue. She’s a self-described Air Force brat, landing in Panama City when her father chose to retire in the Florida Panhandle in the late 1960s. Roughly thirty years later in the 1990s, the city needed someone to run the newly renovated theatre and there was McMinis, local to the area with a serendipitous degree of experience in theatre. McMinis has a background in technical theatre, and she also spent part of her career booking entertainment through a company she founded.
McMinis, as one might imagine, finds it difficult to name a favorite Martin Theatre production. She’s fond of them all. But she does have two that are most memorable to her personally, and one involves Hollywood celebrity and Panama City native David Hart. Hart portrayed Sergeant Parker Williams in the long-running television series In the Heat of the Night. The series ran from 1988 to 1995. Hart was also a classmate of McMinis.
“I have very fond memories of Pippin, my good friend and classmate David Hart stepped in to play the King,” McMinis said. “Not only a fabulous show, but personally fun to hang with him again.”
And the other most memorable Martin Theatre production?
“From the Martin Ensemble, I’m partial to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, because we had a full schedule of school performances, as well as community shows,” McMinis said. “The audience votes on ‘who dunnit’ and whoever won had a song. There was a different ending every night, which kept the actors on their toes!”
Most recently, the theatre suffered a different sort of setback. Hurricane Michael left the venue badly damaged last year, when the Category 5 storm made landfall on the Florida Panhandle. Still recovering, the theatre continues to entertain its community despite the damage. In the aftermath of the hurricane, McMinis said in an interview with the Panama City News Herald, “we want the community to know that, although currently homeless, our heart is still in providing the people of Panama City and Bay County the excellence in entertainment they have come to know and expect with the Martin Theatre.”
October 10 marked the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Michael’s Florida landfall and the theatre remains in recovery, but the shows go on. “Through the generosity of Bay Arts Alliance, we are sharing space at the Arts Center,” McMinis said. “We have been screening films in the upstairs gallery, and will continue to do so throughout the year.”
Martin Theatre has been given permission by Bay Arts to build a small stage in the Gallery so the theatre’s Martin Ensemble continues, just in a more “black box” style. The theatre recently hosted auditions at the Panama City Center for the Arts for Patrick Barlow’s A Christmas Carol. Show dates are December 13 through December 21. Meanwhile, the Presents Series is hosted by the Majestic Beach Resort again this year. Throughout the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, Martin Theatre has only cancelled four movies and one show.
“We’re kind of proud of that,” McMinis said.
According to McMinis, the theatre has presented over 300 shows, produced over 120 plays and musicals, and screened over 150 movies since 1990. “We have also hosted countless community shows, concerts, parties and, yes, we even did wrestling. Once.”
In more recent years, the theatre added the Green Room, a 1,500-square-foot reception and meeting room. “As a venue we’ve hosted innumerable weddings, wedding receptions, birthday parties and, on stage, we’ve hosted schools, community groups and regional promoters to help raise funds for community concerns,” said McMinis.
From Postcards to Instagram Posts
In a vintage photo of Panama City’s Harrison Avenue, Martin Theatre is the centerpiece. It shares a street with downtown businesses of the era like Butler’s Shoes, the independent pharmacy Childs Drugs and, just a few storefronts down from the theatre’s marquee, there’s a local hardware store — the quintessential placeholder of another time, when main streets thrived. In that photo, the downtown is alive, the sidewalks are busy with pedestrians.
Today, many of the nearby storefronts have changed, but there’s no shortage of activity or interest in the downtown theatre. Instagram posts featuring the Martin Theatre are plentiful. It must be hard to walk by the splash of vibrant colors and not document the moment. Allison Patricia posted a photo of the theatre while exploring downtown with her dad on his birthday. Panama City Living magazine reposted an image of the theatre with this caption: “The cutest little corner theater in Panama City complete with palm trees and passerbys.”
If you’d like to learn more about the “cutest little corner theater” in Panama City or the theatre’s upcoming shows and events, join Martin Theatre’s email club by visiting the theatre’s website. And if you’re interested in helping Martin Theatre recover from the damaging effects of Hurricane Michael, consider becoming a sponsor by contacting the theatre. For ticket information, contact the box office at (850) 763-8080.