Jacksonville Life: The Sun-Ray - A Floridian Cinematic Beacon of History

March 30, 2018

As of 2018, video streaming has only begun to bloom as the future of entertainment distribution. Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime and the like are quickly becoming convenient, accessible ways to find movies both mainstream and obscure. They even provide their own exclusive content with Hulu’s “Runaways”, Netflix’s “Stranger Things” and Prime’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” With film-lovers more spoiled for choice than ever, movie theaters are trying multiple ways to catch up. In our local area, AMC and Cinemark Tinseltown theaters are now offering reclining seats, alcoholic beverages, and ever-expanding food menus.

 

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I love going to the movies. I enjoy sitting in a theater with a bunch of other folks who’re looking to either laugh, cry, be scared, or cheer at the events displayed on a screen for two hours. There’s something special about being part of a crowd that experiences a cinematic exploration into either unknown realms or worlds not unlike our own. It’s something that people of all ages, creeds and genders have been enjoying since the motion picture was invented in the 1880s. And for Jacksonville, FL, the Sun-Ray theater contributes to film’s rich history like no other.

When you drive out to the Riverside area and come across Historic Five Points, a street that, naturally, has five roads intersecting at a single point, you will find quaint coffee shops, a dive bar, a couple of restaurants, and an old-fashioned record store that sells premium vinyl albums. But standing out amongst all of it is a giant movie marquee displaying films currently playing. Beneath the marquee stands a chalkboard with schedules for upcoming movies as well as those currently playing.

Once you step inside, you see a steadily ascending floor heading past a smaller theater room where is often played the more obscure arthouse film or foreign language movie brought in for consumption by local cinephiles. Passing a modest arcade of a Capcom fighting game and pinball versions of Classic Doctor Who and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the front lobby gives off a bit of a punk rock feel with its chipped paint on the white pillars, tall tables and matching stools. At one point, there had been a futon, but it has, sadly, been done away with. On the other side of the concessions counter, there used to sit a life-sized replica head from the British indie comedy “Frank.” A Creature of The Black Lagoon figure adorned the front counter next to the candy and brownie case. All these knick-knacks and little touches of movie and pop culture foster a welcoming charm, while also retaining a distinct, rebellious identity all its own.

At the left-hand side as you enter, a gigantic poster board shows the menu. Serving everything from hot dogs and chili dogs to a variety of salads, from pizza and swamp fries to fried pickles and hummus, it’s an eclectic selection for those with a palette for the different and delicious. There are also vegan options for those so inclined. A personal favorite of mine is The Wizard, a foot-long chili dog with cheese topping. Thinking about it makes my mouth water.  And, for those who like something a little stronger than a soda, there is an alcohol menu, as well.

After concessions are made, you turn toward the right with the main amphitheater, where a gigantic screen dominates the room. Underneath lays a stage, where oftentimes special guests from conventions or special film presentations would come and speak to the audience. I, myself, attended one such presentation of The Crow, guested by James O’Barr, author and artist of the Graphic Novel that inspired the fateful film. Previous presentations featured Greg Sestero, author of The Disaster Artist, and Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff, respectively Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank from Mystery Science Theater 3000.

 

But far from my own personal experience is the history of the theater itself. In 1927, prominent Floridian architect Roy A. Benjamin built and opened the sunshine state’s very first “talking pictures” theater; third in the entire country. The first sound film or “talkie” shown in the then-called “Riverside Theater” was Don Juan, starring John Barrymore and Mary Astor. Upon first opening, there were gorgeous venetian decorations along the walls and a large crystal chandelier that hung over the patrons. While the theater does wear the passage of time on its metaphorical sleeve, you can feel the history and sense that it’s been party to many historical events. Having survived closings, re-openings, renovations and renaming, The Sun-Ray Cinema is a part of American cinematic history as well as a cultural and historical landmark for the city of Jacksonville.

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