When most Floridians think of Publix, they imagine the grocery store chain with origins in Winter Haven. But did you know that Publix Super Market got its name from another business? In a speech given by Publix founder, George Jenkins, which was later published as The Publix Story, he explains his inspiration for the name of his company. He says, “The name ‘Publix’ was borrowed from a chain of theaters which was operating throughout Florida at the time. Most of them were closing up, and I liked the sound of the name so I just took it for my store.”
The theater chain was Publix Theatres Corporation, which operated at least 19 theaters in Florida during the mid-1920s and the early 1930s. Although the success of Publix Theatres in Florida was short-lived due to the stock market crash of 1929, Publix had a significant influence on Florida’s theater market because of the high standards the company established and the availability of their theaters.
During the 1920s, the United States saw an increase in chain stores. It started with grocery stores, and moved to drug stores, gas stations and clothing stores before eventually reaching the entertainment market. Companies would begin locally and sometimes develop into national companies, which was the case with Publix Theatres.
In 1925, Publix Theatres was founded in New York City as an affiliate of Paramount Studios. By 1929, Publix had the most powerful theater company in the United States because they modeled their business after large corporations. With 1200 locations, there were Publix theaters in large cities like New York City and Chicago, in addition to theaters in the South, Midwest and Northeast.
The Florida headquarters for Publix was located in St. Petersburg because of the city’s proximity to other Publix locations. Theater sites included the Florida Theatre in St. Petersburg and Jacksonville; the Olympia, Fairfax, Hippodrome and Paramount in Miami; the Stanley, Ketler and Arcade in West Palm Beach; the Tampa Theatre in Tampa; and locations in Gainesville, Daytona, Lake Worth and Palm Beach, to name a few.
With such a large presence in Florida’s theater market, Publix set the standard high for its competitors and for itself. Not only were the theaters opulently decorated, each one was also equipped with air-conditioning. The Florida Theatre in St. Petersburg was the first air-conditioned building in the Suncoast region. During the theater’s grand opening on September 10, 1926, the sold out crowd was reported to have covered their shoulders to keep from freezing. Likewise, a training school was organized for those interested in theater management, and training manuals were created for employees so they could learn how to provide patrons with a courteous and entertaining experience. Publix Theatres provided a space for local communities to come together for events that went beyond watching movies. There were ukulele contests, traveling vaudeville shows, as well as special tea and wafer events.
With the stock market crash, Publix was unable to pay the mortgage debts for its locations around the United States. By 1935, Publix was bankrupt. Many of the theaters owned by Publix were sold, including the theaters in Florida. Sparks Theaters of Lakeland took possession of a number of theaters previously owned by Publix, including the Florida Theatre in St. Petersburg.
The change in owners didn’t mean the end of all theaters formerly under Publix. The Florida Theatres in Jacksonville and St. Petersburg hosted Elvis concerts in August of 1956, as did the Olympia Theater in Miami. Many of the theaters are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Florida Theatre in Jacksonville and the Tampa Theatre in Tampa.
Although Publix Theatres only spent a short time in the Sunshine State, the influence of the company lives on in Florida. Throughout the state you can still visit a Publix, but instead of watching a film you’re shopping for groceries. What are your favorite memories as a theatergoer in Florida? Share with us by leaving a comment below, or by posting this blog on Facebook or Twitter.