Priest Theater in High Springs offers a touch of nostalgia


Customers line up to see Santa Clause 2 at the family owned and operated Priest Theater in High Springs on Monday evening. The projection and screen are original, and the chairs, although redone, are from the 1940's. "This place has given my family a little something extra to put in their pockets," Janice Sheffield, who runs the theater with her husband, son and daughter-in-law, said. "It has just been a blessing."

Lee Ferinden/Special to the Sun
Published: Monday, January 13, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 13, 2003 at 12:11 a.m.
HIGH SPRINGS- Up in the balcony - the skybox of the Priest Theater, where only privileged customers can gain admittance - Raul Colon recently watched "The Santa Clause 2" with his son, Sam.
Not the latest installment of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, which was at the top of the national box office for three weeks. Not "Catch Me If You Can," starring heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio. Not even "Maid in Manhattan" with the inescapable Jennifer Lopez.
And Colon couldn't care less that he wasn't watching one of the latest blockbusters. Would you, if you could get into the Priest balcony?
"I could wait a couple of weeks for a movie to get here. I'd rather not fight the big crowds at movies in Gainesville," Colon said. "I just like coming here. I've been coming since I was 9. My son is 9 now, and I've been bringing him since he was 7."
The Priest Theater is an old movie palace with wooden floors, 240 red seats, a full-sized screen, candles and a stage. About the only thing missing is a piano.
It is owned and run by the Sheffield family - mom Janice sells the tickets, dad Bobby takes them, son Michael and his wife, Stacey, handle the concession stand.
They get first-run movies, but generally three to four weeks after they open in the multiplexes around Gainesville.
This past weekend was the first that the Priest has reeled films since its New Year's break. The movie is "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," which was released about two months ago.
That the Priest's movies have been around awhile is most evident during the Christmas season, when the studios typically release films they count on to make a lot of money.
Nationally, the top-grossing movie for the weekends during and after the holidays was "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers." It has hustled in more than $283 million in its first month of release, and this past weekend was finally bumped from its No. 1 spot to come in second.
"Catch Me If You Can" has sold more than $119.5 million in tickets during its three weeks and was third in the box office tally this past weekend.
But it's clear at the Priest that the movie house is as much of a draw as the movie.
Customers old enough to remember movies in stand-alone theaters, rather than multiplexes, come for the nostalgia.
Entire families come, so even teenagers who would rather lose car privileges than be seen at a Gainesville movie with mom and dad don't hide in horror when their friends see the family at the Priest.
It's only $3.50 on Friday and Saturday and $2.50 on Monday. And patrons don't have to engage in battles worthy of "Lord of the Rings" against traffic and crowds at Gainesville theaters.
"It's cheap. I go to a lot of movies during the holidays, and there is a big difference between paying $8 and what you pay here," Kerrie Taylor said.
"It's fun because you know everybody. You run into all of your friends."
It was built in 1926 by car dealer W.J. Priest initially for live theater. The market for that wasn't so hot at the time, so he started selling cars there. A few years later it became a movie theater.
Janice Sheffield said the theater draws customers from throughout the region. Loyal customers who have been coming for years can sometimes get seats in the balcony, which is otherwise off-limits.
The theater also has special showings for groups that rent the place for parties or events.
"They like the feeling, the memories, the families. You can see how the people interact," Janice Sheffield said. "Some people like it because they like to go back in time. A lot of people say, 'Oh, this is what movies were like when I was a teenager.' "
Cindy Swirko can be reached at 374-5024 or swirkoc@ gvillesun.com.

THEATER:

Initially built for live theater in 1926

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