■ BY MARCY SHORTUSE
Amid tears and good wishes, more than 30 people said goodbye to their home away from home at the end of June, 2018, as the Old Theatre Building’s doors were closed. It had been a major hub of activity in downtown Boca Grande for decades, and Betsy Joiner and Kathleen Turner hope it will return to that status once again some day.
Two of the island’s favorite eateries located inside the building – The Grapevine Gourmet & Gift and PJ’s Seagrille – are now gone, too, leaving a big hole in their faithful patrons’ stomachs … and their hearts.
Betsy Joiner, the general manager for both places, has had a long history with food management and has been working there since the early 1990s. Her father built the original Pink Elephant restaurant in the year she was born, and she grew up spending as much time there as she did anywhere else.
Her fondness for the family that purchased the building in 1978 – the Kruders – is apparent when she talks about how different her life will be now. In fact, there weren’t many people who worked there who didn’t become family to her.
Betsy and Kathleen want to make sure everyone is aware how much this community means to them, and they are ready to start a new chapter in their lives, as well as in the life of the Old Theatre Building.
The building itself is Boca Grande history epitomized. It has seen many uses since being built by L.G. Campbell of Pittsburgh Steel in 1928. Everyone went to the movies on the island, and the old theater seats had seen everyone from the housemaids to the J.P. Morgan, du Pont and Vanderbilt families. The seashell floor was always full of peanut shells left from bags of treats purchased from Murdock, the original owner of the monkey Chico who also sold “skeeter beeters” at the theater. On rainy nights the movies were impossible to hear with rain pounding on the old tin roof.
Paul Kruder purchased the building in 1978, when movie theater was long gone. The building meant a lot to the island resident, and while many would have looked at the project as a teardown, he took great pains to restore it to as close to the original as he could.
In a quote from Pirate Coast magazine in 2008 Kruder said, “The San Marco Theater was an important part of the community, because it was their connection to the outside world. It was the one place where blacks and whites, rich and poor, came together.”
In 1983 renovations were complete, and Kruder opened it with partners George Arehart and Jan Bloempoort. The bulding had come back to life as a mini mall that would contain many shops, as Kruder knew the importance of employing as many people as possible from the island.
Kruder’s daughter, Kathleen (now Turner), worked there until she went off to college, then returned to work there instead of going to graduate school. She first ran the Island Art Gallery (where Fine Things/Serendipity Gallery was). She joined Mark Shevitski in managing Mark’s Theatre Restaurant, which had previously been known as Previews and Bogart’s. The theater theme continued throughout the years, even until the building closed.
Betsy Fugate Joiner came to work there in 1993 and managed the restaurant and the “front of the house” until the building’s closing. JT Turner came to work there in the mid- 1990s and married Kathleen. He became the head chef at PJ’s eventually, and he stayed in that position until they closed.
In 1994 everyone decided it was time to change the name of the restaurant, which at that time was called the Theatre Restaurant after Shevitski left. Everyone who stopped by thought it was a dinner theater, and Kathleen, her parents and everyone else involved knew it was creating too much confusion. Paul didn’t know until he saw the restaurant marquee sign that they had named the restaurant after him, “PJ.” The “Seagrille” part of the name was chosen to reflect the seafood that was served there.
At one time there was a flower shop, a produce shop and a jewelry store in the building as well as The Grapevine and the restaurant. Fine Things/Serendipity, owned by Daniel and Kim Schwertman, was there for 30 years. Patty Kitchen, the “chef behind the scenes” who was the sous chef for the restaurant and the primary chef for The Grapevine, came to work there right about the same time Betsy Joiner did. Lora Barmann, the marketing manager and buyer for The Grapevine, was there for 20 years.
Generations of families sat in Fishtales Lounge for wedding dinners, funerals, baptism parties and reunions. Their children and grandchildren had stared at the large fish tank filled with beautiful, colorful fish of all sorts while their parents socialized.
“Our staff has been very loyal, and many have worked here on and off for 15 or more years,” Betsy said. “We have shared so many great memories throughout this time, raising our families together, meeting new and returning friends … It has been a pleasure to be part of this community for more than 30 years. This old building has shared a lot of love, but now it’s time for someone else to bring it to life.”
For more on the closing of the Old Theatre Building, see the September/October edition of Gasparilla Island Magazine.