The Robert M. Montgomery, Jr. Building currently serves as headquarters of the Cultural Council for Palm Beach County. Take a trip through the building’s fascinating 80-year history below.
The Palm Beach Post announced on July 1, 1939, a new theater would soon be constructed in downtown Lake Worth, it stated that the owners planned to make the 1,000-seat house “one of the finest in South Florida.”
“The new theater will be of the most modern design…and it has been especially designed to embody the latest features of sound and moving picture projection,” the article said. “There will be 800 seats in the orchestra section with an additional 200 seats in a special loge balcony above the theater doors. All seats will be of the newest deluxe spring edge type with deep upholstery. The structure…will have a front of modernistic design trimmed with stone, glass and stucco and will be ornamented with sidewalk marquise of porcelain enamel and stainless steel. The entrance foyer will be heavily carpeted and the walls will be treated in the latest wall design.”
The building was designed by well-known Florida architect Roy A. Benjamin, who had a number of other theaters in the Southeast to his credit, including the strikingly similar San Marco Theatre in Jacksonville.
The new Lake Theatre opened on February 29, 1940; Mayor Grady Brantley called it “something for Lake Worth to be proud of.” It was reported that telegrams were read from such Hollywood luminaries as Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy, Tyrone Power, Mickey Rooney, Don Ameche, Fred MacMurray, Bob Hope, Shirley Temple, Bing Crosby, Alice Faye, Clark Gable, Jack Benny and Linda Darnell. The first feature was Little Old New York, starring Faye and MacMurray.
The Lake Theatre showed first-run films and did its part to support the war effort—hosting benefits for the USO and offering free admission for purchasers of war bonds. The theater had another direct connection to the war, albeit a sad one. Alexander R. “Sandy” Nininger, Jr., a 1941 graduate of West Point and the son of the Lake’s second manager, was killed in action in the Philippines during a heroic effort to capture an enemy position. He was posthumously awarded the first Congressional Medal of Honor of World War II.
By the early 1970s, however, as suburban multi-screen theaters with plentiful parking began to proliferate, the Lake Theatre could no longer sustain itself. It finally went dark after a June 16, 1974, showing of Disney’s Robin Hood. Employees gave the once-glorious movie palace a rather checkered send-off with an after-hours party where they drank beer and threw crushed ice snowballs at the screen.
In November 1975, the Pasta Palace opened in the building with a menu featuring “29 complete dinners priced under $5” and free movie screenings. There was an Italian delicatessen in the lobby where patrons could “buy homemade noodles from our pasta machine.” The bar and lounge were located in front of the movie screen and the former loge seats were utilized as “special dining areas for more privacy,” The Lake Worth Herald reported.
By February 1976, it had closed. The building’s next occupant (from November 1976 until late 1978) was Horsefeathers – a restaurant that continued the practice of showing films while diners ate their meals on the former theater floor or, for larger groups, in the balcony. The décor featured movie stills, posters and memorabilia. After 10 p.m., according to an article in The Herald, “the ‘Boogie in the Balcony’ discotheque comes to life with lights flashing to the beat of disco music engineered by a professional disc jockey.”
After Horsefeathers closed, another disco—Kaleidoscope—took up residence. Opening on June 1, 1979, it was geared to 12- to 18-year-olds, who could “dance the night away with destiny” on South Florida’s largest dance floor with the “greatest super disco sound and light system in Florida.” Drinks were non-alcoholic, proper dress was required and parents were welcome. Despite initial success, however, The Lake Worth Herald reported that, “Kaleidoscope quietly closed its doors in January 1980, leaving behind a long line of unpaid bills.”
Later in 1980, J. Patrick Lannan, Sr., a well-known financier, entrepreneur
and part-time Palm Beach resident, took steps to breathe new life into the former theater – although with a radically different purpose. He purchased the building to house his extensive and acclaimed collection of contemporary and modern American and European art.
On March 6, 1983, the Lannan Foundation Museum opened. “Architect Mark Hampton of Miami spent about a year and a half, under Lannan’s direction, renovating the building for the collection,” The Lake Worth Herald reported. “Multilevel floors, nearly hidden alcoves and the old theater balcony all add to the building’s new character.” Unfortunately on September 25, 1983, Lannan died of heart failure in New York at age 78.
While its primary focus was to exhibit Lannan’s remarkable collection, the Lannan Museum also became a venue for a wide array of cultural pursuits. Earlier in 1983, in fact, the Daily News reported that dancer Pamela DeFina was teaching the Isadora Duncan style of dance at the museum. In April, the Daily News noted that Gordon Getty’s song cycle The White Election, based on the poems of Emily Dickinson, had been performed there as part of the Palm Beach Festival. In October, pianist Shigeru Asano was scheduled to perform a concert at the museum to benefit the Palm Beach County Chapter of the American Red Cross.
Nancy Mato, who worked with Lannan and was formerly the executive vice president of The Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach, recalled something never reported during Lannan’s time. “His dream was that he wanted three satellite contemporary museums in the area, and maybe as many as five,” she said. According to the August 12, 1988, edition of the Miami Herald, “The Lannan Museum in Lake Worth, home of one of the most important modern art collections in America today, will cease to exist.”
After a major renovation overseen by architect Gene Lawrence, the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art (PBICA) was opened to the public on March 4, 2000. Founded on the premise that contemporary art is a vital means of understanding ourselves and our culture, the PBICA mounted exhibitions with emphasis on cutting edge contemporary work by world-renowned artists. Only lasting for half a decade, the PBICA challenged viewers with its daring and ambitious exhibitions that were acclaimed and reviewed internationally.
PBICA was an institution that encouraged large questions be posed and investigated. It exhibited a range of artists from films by Andy Warhol and Nam June Paik to sculpture by Jorge Prado to photography by Diane Arbus. It was a venue for major national and international art in all media and a meeting ground for the diverse populations who live in and visit the Palm Beach region.
Founded in 1978, the Cultural Council was created to promote and support arts and culture in Palm Beach County. After over 30 years residing in rented space, the Council finally has a place of its own to expand and continue in the footsteps of other visionaries who saw that this building could be a place for art.
In January 2010, the Montgomery Family generously donated this Streamline Moderne building to the Cultural Council. REG Architects oversaw the renovation with Gene Lawrence as architectural advisor and Conkling and Lewis as contractor.
And so the remarkable story of this venerable landmark – which has played such diverse roles as movie theater, cutting-edge museum, Italian restaurant and even disco—continues to be written.
A printed version of this story was originally written and produced by Brian Black.