On a typical Friday night, the High Springs community would line up, clamoring to catch the premiere of the latest local love story while listening to the distinct pop of everyone’s favorite movie snack. But now, scarfing down buttered popcorn as the lights dim on a Friday night is another piece of fiction.
There is no movie theater in High Springs. Not anymore.
Instead, the High Springs community lined up for public comment at the City Commission meeting July 13. The item on the docket is the latest local love story: the bond between High Springs and the Priest Theatre.
The theater closed down during the COVID-19 pandemic and has remained closed ever since, losing its structural integrity with each passing day. But its community refuses to let it die.
Almost 50 people, including Janet Alligood, the 52-year-old owner of the theater, attended the meeting in hopes to convince the commission to help preserve the theater.
“I don't know how we can just let this close,” Alligood said. “It didn't seem fathomable that it was not going to be there anymore.”
Many other members of the community shared her sentiment. At the meeting, they shared stories of how the theater had generations worth of history and memories.
The saga of the Priest Theatre spans more than a century, and this isn’t the first time people fought to bring the theater back.
It originally opened in 1910 to provide live vaudeville performances. As technology and entertainment changed, so did the theater.
Eventually, it was bought by Bobby and Janice Sheffield, Alligood’s parents, who planned to use it to expand their hardware business. Once they saw how much it meant to the community, they decided to keep it as a theater.
They operated it for 28 years before deciding to retire and close the theater. Movie theaters began to transition to digital projectors, and the Sheffields felt they could no longer keep up.
But after they announced their retirement and their intent to close the theater, the community responded with a petition to keep it alive.
Alligood would help her parents by working concessions or selling tickets. It was during her first volunteer shift on opening day in 1986 that she met her husband. They eventually had their first date there, too. Later on, they would both volunteer to help her parents throughout the week even after they were married.
They were heartbroken to know the theater would be closing but did not want the responsibility to maintain it themselves. Her husband worked for the Alachua County Fire Department and didn’t think he could dedicate the time needed.
However, that started to change after they went to the theater to watch a movie with their family before the theater closed. While she watched, she saw all the other families and realized she could not let the theater close.
“I just started praying about it,” Alligood said. “I said, ‘Well, I'm going to pray about it because something's got to happen.’”
She encouraged her husband to pray, too.
“You pray about it, and come back in a couple weeks, and tell me what you feel,” she said to her husband.
A few weeks later he asked her, “Why did you make me do this?”
“I think he was angry that I'd asked him,” Alligood said.
After reflecting on it, her husband had a change of heart. Despite not wanting the responsibility, he also knew that the theater shouldn’t shut down.
She started following her mom around, learning how to run the theater and researching different methods to raise money for the digital upgrades. She often found herself doubting if they would be able to remain open, but with the help of friends and patrons who were always willing to help out, they began raising the money to keep the Priest Theatre open.
She called them “little moments of light.”
Eventually, Alligood and her husband completely took over in 2013.
But after a few years of keeping the theater running and once COVID damaged the movie industry, they considered selling it to a church.
“I didn't feel something calling me that, that would be what I would do forever,” she said. “I just knew something was telling me, ‘Don't let it close.’”
She believed selling it to an organization that could use the space even though it would no longer be a theater would be good enough. She didn’t expect the community to react the way it did.
“The community did not like that they were going to make it into a church,” she said.
After a few more years, a new buyer was interested and wanted to keep it as an entertainment space. But during the final inspection, they discovered several structural issues that halted the sale.
Since then, progress has been slow, but the city has considered getting involved in its preservation since the theater means so much to the community.
The nostalgia was not the only reason some wanted to see the theater preserved. Julie Smith, owner of the Facebook group High Springs What's Happening, believes it will bring more family-friendly entertainment to the downtown area.
“It will revitalize the downtown,” Smith said. “You don't want to erase history. You want to embrace it and make it and restore it.”
She felt inspired by the number of people who showed up to support the idea that the Priest Theatre has meaning.
“That meeting was alive,” she said. “You just felt the emotions. You felt the energy. You felt the love of a building that so many people out there want to save.”
The message of theater’s importance does not go unheard or unseen by the city government.
Kevin Mangan, the public information officer for High Springs, recognizes the Priest Theatre’s impact on the community.
“It's a landmark,” he said. “When it comes to High Springs, you have two landmarks. It's the Priest Theatre and the Great Outdoors.”
The Great Outdoors is a historic restaurant also located in downtown High Springs.
Recognizing the significance of the Priest Theatre, the commission has already taken steps toward its possible preservation. They applied for a state appropriation to help fund the restoration of the building and were granted $1.4 million.
The city now seeks a building assessment to determine what renovations are needed and the cost. Once the estimate is calculated, the commission will decide whether to use the grant to fix the building.
“Right now, we are in the due diligence phase of finding out what specifically is going to be needed and then going from there,” Mangan said.
Though the restoration of the theater is largely supported by the community, no one is really sure what will actually happen. Though Alligood feels largely responsible for its future, she also knows that “whatever God wants it to be, whatever is meant to be for the Priest,” will be.
In the end, she just hopes the building will be preserved in some way so future generations can have their own stories to tell about it.
Alligood reiterated Winston Churchill’s quote: “We shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us.”
Contact Aubrey at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @aubreyyrosee.
Aubrey Bocalan is a third-year journalism major. She is also pursuing a double major in Art. When she isn't writing, she's probably watching TV with her dog, Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore Bocalan.