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The Priest Theatre in High Springs still stands, but with no projected path forward

2023 photo of the Priest Theatre still standing in High Springs on Feb 24. (Alex Magee/WUFT News)
2023 photo of the Priest Theatre still standing in High Springs on Feb 24. (Alex Magee/WUFT News)

Coconut oil, Cretors popcorn salt and high-end popcorn kernels. Those three ingredients were all it took to make what was said to be the best popcorn in town.

“Best popcorn around, no doubt about that,” said Janet Alligood, the owner of the Priest Theatre in High Springs.

The Priest Theatre was slated to be demolished in 2022. But the treasured building still stands today, desolate since its last screening of Disney’s “Onward” in March 2020.

Tina Corbett works next door to the Priest at her oil painting studio, Tina Corbett Fine Art. She said she would go to the Priest every Monday to watch a movie with a group of friends in town when the theater was open.

Corbett said the popcorn tasted fresh and non-artificial. She got one thing right. The popcorn was made to be as healthy as possible.

Alligood said that her late mother was the one who came up with the recipe. Alligood’s parents bought the theater in 1984, and Alligood said her mother knew she would be eating a lot of popcorn with the amount of time she spent there. As a health nut, she came up with a recipe that tasted good but wasn’t bad for you. And she had a signature technique.

“Most people think that popcorn is best when you eat it right after it is made,” said Alligood. But they found that it tasted better and the texture wasn’t as tough after letting it sit for 10 to 15 minutes.

In 2012, a year after Alligood took over the business, the Priest almost closed. Many companies stopped making the traditional 35mm prints used to screen movies, and it was getting harder and harder to find them.

The community took it upon themselves to raise more than $85,000 to help save the theater. The money raised was used to help transition from 35mm film to a completely digital system. Wulf Install, Inc., a local company, offered to do all the updates with no additional charges beyond what was raised by the community.

Alligood said that a lot of what the company did came from their hearts.

“The community would not let them shut down,” said Kyra Brown, a High Springs resident who would regularly take her kids to the Priest.

Everything seemed bright until 2020 when COVID-19 hit, and all of the area businesses were shut down. Alligood and her husband Alan had plans to sell the theater to the Living Covenant church in October. The plans for that have since fallen through. And the ceiling is headed in the same direction.

Alligood said that the building has two roofs, and the original one is giving due to rainwater. The more the ceiling gives, the more water it can hold. It is essentially a bowl that just continues to grow. If it isn’t repaired, it will collapse. Fixing it will cost close to $400,000, and that is money that Alligood and her family just don’t have.

She says the demolition is on hold for the time being, and her family is not sure what they are going to do next

Alligood said the market for movies has slowly been returning to where it was before the pandemic, but it is still not there. Many people are using home streaming services, which is why running the theater still doesn’t work financially.

Alligood said she knew that the building needed multiple types of revenue to keep its doors open. She said she thinks someone could use it as a live venue for music bands and other entertainment.

The main goal is for the building to be preserved, but if it does end up getting torn down, she would love to see it transformed into an outdoor theater.

“I’ll be honest with you. I wish it was still open,” Alligood said. Many people asked her why she didn’t start a GoFundMe. “I don't think that asking for that kind of money is correct or right.”

She said the Priest was a positive place. It was not a job that you didn’t want to go to. And she misses what it did for others.

“I miss the faces and the people and how often they told you they appreciated the space,” she said.

Alexandria is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing