PANAMA CITY — The Martin Theatre in downtown Panama City has quite a story to tell.
Inside that story are the ups and downs, the triumphs and misfortunes, the blockbusters, the tragedies, and the comebacks that all weave a plot rivaling any movie that has graced the screen inside the historic structure. Even a name change adds to the tale.
Oh, and it could be haunted!
Putting on the Ritz
Built in 1936, the Martin originally was called the Ritz Theatre and had no trouble living up to its name.
An article in the Nov. 21, 1936, edition of the St. Andrews Bay News called out the velvet curtains saying, “There is not a theatre in the country that has a more handsome curtain.” They described it as being rich, heavy red velvet with broad gold bands and modernistic designs in the corners.
The sound system was state of the art, the same RCA system used at Radio City Music Hall in Rockefeller Center in New York City. The screen and curtain were remote controlled. Lighting was described as a “rainbow” of color. The cost to build the Ritz was $75,000. Yes, you read that right. The building was equipped with a new system, for that era, that would heat the inside during the winter and cool it in the summer.
Meet the theater’s namesake
The men behind the theater were Roy Martin Sr. of Columbus, Georgia, and partner Rufus Davis of Dothan, Alabama. Davis — who started out with nickel theaters before buying his first movie house in Dothan, and then a second and a third — was eager to expand.
Martin had a fascination with a new-fangled gadget called the “nickelodeon” and bought his first movie house in Columbus in 1912. He, too, added a second, a third, and more. A profile of Martin in the Columbus Public Library says by the 1950s Martin owned 140 theaters across Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee.
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Martin and Davis partnered on a number of theaters, including the Ritz in Panama City.
In addition to his empire across the South, Martin also could be remembered as the first owner to bring popcorn and drinks into a theater to sell to moviegoers. His grandson, Buddy Martin, told Columbus’ Ledger Enquirer in 2016 that at first, the sale of popcorn and drinks made a lot of people mad. “It was too nice of a place to do that,” he was quoted. But today, trying to imagine a trip to the movies without popcorn is difficult to do.
From vaudeville to patriotic events
In Panama City, the Ritz became much more than a movie house. It hosted vaudeville acts, beauty pageants and concerts. During the war, the Ritz was the place to see news reels and attend numerous patriotic events. Historical accounts say actor Clark Gable attended one of the events during his military training at Tyndall Field.
During World War II, a war bond show at the Ritz attracted a handful of celebrities, including actor Leif Erickson, baseball legend Ted Williams and opera singer Elwood Gary.
Martin died in a 1948 plane crash in Mississippi with three other people. The plane was on its way back from New Orleans to Columbus, Georgia, when it crashed into the Pearl River.
Like many actors, as the Ritz began to age a face-lift was needed.
Times they are a-changin’
In the early 1950s, the Martin family changed the building’s name to the Martin Theatre and the façade and marquee were updated. The MT logo, which remains highly visible on the marquee, was added. It was originally a clock surrounded by a circle and 12 dots. The clock broke after it was installed. Most historical accounts say it never worked.
Tough times continued for the Martin as newer theaters were being built, suburbs began to steal people away from downtown and drive-ins became the popular alternative for “date night.” The 1950s were a tragic time for theaters everywhere with television adding to big screen woes.
In October 1977, The News Herald reported the Martin was closing, joining the Bay, Panama and Beach theaters in shutting down. Martin’s chain, however, still operated the Florida Triple, the Capri and two drive-ins in the Panama City area. But the lights went out on the Martin marquee.
After years of decline, investors bought the building and tried to donate it to a theater group but the renovation costs brought down that curtain before it had a chance to open.
Shooting gallery, then back to the future
The Martin’s story took a B movie turn in 1985 as The News Herald reported the theater was being transformed into a shooting range. Dead Eye Jack’s gave gun owners a chance to bring in their own weapons and shoot at 21 human-shaped targets that would move from the stage area toward the shooters.
Owners Michael Bargerhuff and Jack Beeter also planned to establish shooting booths in the balcony with model soldier targets perched on small-scale helicopters to “simulate a real-life battle situation.” The decor would reference a Viet Cong jungle.
Despite the optimism, the Martin was soon quiet and empty again. This time the Downtown Improvement Board stepped in and purchased the building in 1987. With lots of community support, the Martin was given new life and on Nov. 19, 1990, a ribbon-cutting welcomed the public back into the theater. The Panama City Downtowner called the event a “gala affair.” David Jernigan entertained with such patriotic songs as “God Bless America.” Nita Whitehurst performed on the organ and the Downtowner noted she provided her own organ for the event.
Its new lighting and sound equipment made the Martin a popular venue for concerts, theatrical performances and community events.
Michael necessitates another comeback
Natural disasters are popular in movies, but when real-life Hurricane Michael blew into town in October 2018, the Martin was in its path. Parts of the ceiling collapsed onto the seating and rain destroyed the carpets in the building. The Martin has been closed ever since.
Down again, but not out, the Martin is slowly making a comeback. The city has restored the exterior and the marquee making the theater a shining focal point to downtown renovation and revitalization. The marquee carries messages about upcoming community events.
Caitlin Lawrence, Panama City’s public information officer, said the interior architectural design for the renovation project is about 75% complete.
“Construction bid documents will be completed in mid-June and, after a competitive bid process, the project is planned to move into the construction phase in late fall,” she said.
For now, the stage and seating area have been stripped down to concrete and wood leaving the theater looking like a giant empty cavern. It’s dark and eerily quiet.
So what about the Martin being haunted?
Blogger Violet Sky writes about the “Ghosts of the Martin Theatre” in her blog on violetskyadventures.com. She reports that guests and staff during the years have reported mysterious sounds coming from the corridors of the historic theater. She says workers have claimed that curtains have been found pulled down after they swore they were put up the night before. Add to that flickering lights, shivering screams, and missing objects.
Sky also reports that paranormal experts have investigated the Martin and more than five ghosts might be roaming the building.
The city doesn’t have an estimated opening date set. But you can bet when it opens they will have a ribbon-cutting and a gala event.
If the ghost of Roy Martin is in the house, perhaps popcorn will be on the menu!
Information for this article was provided by the Bay County Library, Local History Room, News Herald archives and the Columbus Public Library.