Our Town: High Springs: Priest Theatre

By Alli Langley

Our TownThey don’t walk in quietly right before the show starts, and they don’t sit down next to people they don’t know. The Priest Theatre in High Springs isn’t like other movie theaters.

“Everybody knows everybody,” said owner Janice Sheffield. “And everybody’s talking.”

At 7:30 p.m. the Priest opens, and the movie magic begins.

Sheffield, 65, works the box office selling tickets for $5 on Fridays and Saturdays and $3 on Mondays. Her husband, Bobby, tears everyone’s tickets, often telling jokes, after they walk through the theatre’s glass door.

“He’s always got something to say to ‘em,” she said. “Something to make ‘em smile, something to make ‘em laugh.”

The Sheffields’ children and grandchildren help with behind-the-scenes jobs and run the concession stand in the lobby, where people buy popcorn, soda and candy for a small-town price. The lobby is covered in vintage Coca-Cola memorabilia and memories, from plush polar bears to yellowing photos, as well as local kids.

“Usually we get a big crowd of kids sitting around,” she said. “They don’t even watch the movie. They play cards, they talk, they tell jokes and just enjoy one another.”

Those who do want to watch the movie duck their heads under an arch built almost a century ago and settle in among a sea of red seats. The movie is scheduled for 8 p.m., but it never starts right on time.

Bobby Sheffield has to finish tearing everyone’s tickets before he can head to the projector room upstairs, get the reels rolling and start the movie.

The theatre was built by W.A. Priest, owner of the Ford Motor car dealership on the corner of Main Street and First Avenue, in 1914. To pick a name for the theatre, he held a contest where residents submitted their ideas, and he chose “Dreamland Theatre” as the winner.

But the “fathers of the city,” now called city commissioners, Sheffield said, rejected the name because it was too risqué. So Priest named the theatre after himself. Two owners later, the theatre has kept its original name.

In the beginning, vaudeville performers delighted audiences until silent motion pictures became the next big thing. Older patrons might remember a time when blacks entered though a separate door and sat in the balcony. But the theatre adapted as movie technology progressed and the times changed.

Born and raised on a farm in High Springs, Sheffield visited the theatre for the first time with a friend from her third grade class. She can’t remember the name of that first movie, but she thinks Elvis was in it.

As a teenager at Santa Fe High School, Sheffield went to the theatre on dates with Bobby. After they married, movie nights became family outings. They decided to buy the theatre about 25 years ago, Sheffield said, because of its location directly behind their main business, Sheffield’s Hardware.

They remodeled and restored the theatre to its original place in the community. Today High Springs is home to about 4,000 people, but the theatre is the Sheffields’ house. Everyone must follow their house rules.

Because of what some might call old-fashioned family values, Sheffield tries to show mostly movies rated G and PG. She has to show the PG-13s, she said, or else she wouldn’t have a movie to show every week. No Rs though.

The theatre also enforces a dress code taken from the local high school’s rules. No baggy pants or short shorts, no underwear or cleavage showing.

The sign that used to display the dress code was popular with the community.

“We’ve had people all the way from California take pictures of it,” Sheffield said, “and we’ve had members of different churches come up and say, ‘We need that on the church doors.’”

While the theatre can seat 240 people, the Sheffields only let in 220. There’s less trouble, Sheffield said, and it’s less stressful when it’s not full to capacity. Families and couples can easily sit together.

The theatre doesn’t allow teenagers to make out in the theatre. Couples who are thinking about trying any funny business should know that Sheffield sits on a stool in the back and has no problem walking down the aisle to tell people to stop.

The audience is like her family, she said, and she expects the kids to behave like her own children would.

While frisky behavior isn’t allowed, Sheffield has become a matchmaker of sorts. Over the years, countless couples have met at the theatre and later married, Sheffield said, including her own 40-year-old son, Michael.

The last thing Sheffield doesn’t tolerate in her theater is cell phones out after the lights go off. She’s on especially high alert when she spots one regular, a movie buff who comes almost every week.

“He says it’s not a movie unless you see it in the theatre,” she said. “I have to be really on my toes when he’s here, because he’s in the movie, and any distraction like that makes him realize he’s not in the movie.”

Some High Springs residents have told Sheffield that her theatre was the deciding factor when they chose to move to town. Just as the theatre plays a large role in the community, the community plays a role in the theatre.

Sheffield said she often schedules movies around the schedules of her audience members. Recently, she played a Disney princess movie because a mother requested it for her daughter’s birthday. She set the date for another movie because a friend asked her to wait until he returns home from vacation.

Famous around town, Sheffield can’t even go to Subway, the post office or the bank without being stopped by a familiar face.

“When I go to the grocery store everybody knows me,” she said. “They stop and want to talk to me, and of course their first question is what’s playing this weekend.”

Another local celebrity, Wes Skiles, honored Sheffield when he asked to premiere his movies at the Priest. The world renowned cave diver and film maker lived in High Springs and died last summer while scuba diving off the coast of Boyton Beach.

He brought his family to the theatre every weekend, Sheffield said, so she didn’t think twice before letting him use the theatre free of charge. One of the best nights at the theatre, was when Skiles’ “Hidden Rivers of Florida,” a special for the PBS series “Water’s Journey,” sold out the first weekend.

Before the showing that Monday night, Sheffield made Skiles stop chatting with the audience to tell the long line of people outside they wouldn’t get in because there were no more seats. Luckily for them, the Priest showed the movie again the next weekend.

Skiles dreamed of owning the theatre one day so he could privately preview his movies and then show them at the theatre, Sheffield said.

After she and her husband retire, Sheffield hopes the High Springs Main Street Program takes over and saves the theatre. For almost 100 years, it has been part of the community. A community that “makes you feel like you got a big family,” Sheffield said.

“It’s a wonderful feeling,” she said. “If they was all strangers I can’t imagine what that would feel like.”

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