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Who’s the lost, forgotten pioneer who created Palm Beach County movies?

Today, the city of West Palm Beach has only one movie theater complex.

Carl Kettler would probably be flabbergasted.

As the 20th century began, Kettler saw limitless possibilities in the newfangled business of motion picture palaces. An irrepressible, Barnum-like booster, he opened the county’s first movie theater in 1908, creating a downtown cinema empire that no one had dreamed of before.

In advertisements, he was known simply as “Kettler — The Moving Picture Man.” What he did and said was front-page news. If he recommended a movie, people lined up: “When Kettler Advertises It, It’s Good” read one of his tell-it-like-it-is promotions, usually accompanied by a picture of his sober, professorial face.

Kettler loved his job so much he risked arrest for it — and was put on trial four times.

“I guess you would call me a pioneer,” he said in a 1949 interview with The Palm Beach Post.

But he’s a mostly forgotten one.

The site of his boldest theater is now a nondescript parking lot at Clematis Street and Narcissus Avenue, right across from Centennial Fountain. Maybe a statue or a plaque should be erected there, marking the intersection where Kettler helped create a vibrant hub of downtown moviegoing that is quickly fading from memory.

‘A huge personality’

After his career had soared to dizzying heights, after he’d made fortunes and lost them, Carl Kettler remembered with vivid detail the day in 1901 that he stepped off a train at the corner of Narcissus and Banyan. He looked around at West Palm Beach and never left.

He had originally come to Palm Beach to visit his father, who was secretary to a famous actor-comedian of the era, Joseph Jefferson. Kettler’s granddaughter, Darden Kettler Daves, said that young Carl appeared on stage with Jefferson, and the experience may have fueled a lifelong theatrical flair.

“He was a huge personality,” said Daves, who is married to the former West Palm Beach mayor Joel Daves. “What I remember most about him was his exuberance.”

He began as an agent for Standard Oil, according to Census records, but soon gravitated to movie theaters. After briefly running an open-air nickelodeon, Kettler opened the county’s first proper movie palace, the Bijou, on October 28, 1908 in the Jefferson Building on Clematis Street.

"He was a huge personality. What I remember most about him was his exuberance."
— Darden Kettler Daves

He moved it to the corner of Narcissus and Clematis in 1914. And through his Bijou Amusu Co., he soon began to own or manage a string of theaters downtown and on Palm Beach: the Rialto, the Olympic, the Stanley, the Garden and the Beaux Arts.

Kettler was a born promoter. He’d take a train to Atlanta, book movies and then send a hyperbolic telegram to the paper: “Jane Cowl in ‘Spreading Dawn’ exceeds my expectations. The patrons of the Bijou will miss a big treat if they fail to see this stupendous and marvelous production.”

He’d try anything to pull a crowd. Over the years, he staged wrestling matches and had a telegraph wire installed to give patrons an inning-by-inning breakdown of a World Series game. He featured theatrical legends, blackface performers, even a psychic with a turban known as “Raymar, Man of Mystery.” He gave away free automobiles in raffles.

At the same time, he believed in his city, helped run the first local baseball team and was “passionately community-minded,” recalled his granddaughter. Not that he got a lot of thanks for it.

In fact, he almost went to jail for it.

‘The first step toward Bolshevism’

In 1917, he was arrested for violating a city ordinance by showing movies on Sunday. The Post reported that a “church element” was behind the charge. People packed the courthouse to watch a blue-law showdown, but it ended in a mistrial.

Then, in January 1920, Kettler was charged again. Once more, the courtroom was filled, even the balcony. Every lawyer in town was in attendance, the Post said.

It came down to an argument about whether a more lenient state law superseded city law. News accounts indicated that fellow pioneer businessman J.C. “Pa” Stowers, who sometimes attended the same church as Kettler, was out to impose Christian order on the community. Kettler’s blatant blasphemy was a prime target.

Defense counsel argued that other businesses freely operated on Sundays, but prosecutor C.D. Blackwell painted Kettler as some kind of dangerous radical.

“The attitude of the defendant here tonight is one of defiance to the law,” Blackwell told the jury. “This is merely the first step toward Bolshevism. It is like waving the red flag of anarchy.”

"Probably nothing to brag about, but I am responsible for Florida theaters being open on Sundays"
— Carl Kettler

Again, the jurors could not reach an agreement. Another trial ended the same way, though jurors were leaning toward acquittal. Finally, in a third hearing on Feb. 9, 1920, the jury went out for five minutes and returned with a verdict: Not guilty.

Years later, Kettler was modest about his achievement. “Probably nothing to brag about, but I am responsible for Florida theaters being open on Sundays,” he said.

By then, Kettler knew the cost of being in the public eye. From roughly 1910-1916, he also served as a West Palm city commissioner. When he announced in August 1916 that he would not run again, he was characteristically blunt about his reasons: “Sometimes I have met with praise — but more frequently with abuse…” In another article, he noted that the financial rewards of city service “do not pay cigarette money.”

Despite his misgivings, he ran. And lost. But he may have already been dreaming of something bigger: A sensational movie palace with his name up in lights.

The most beautiful theater south of Atlanta’

In August 1922, the front page of the Post announced plans for a five-story, $300,000 theater and business building at the corner of Narcissus and Clematis (then known as Myrtle Street.) It would have an elevator to transport theatergoers between the first floor and balcony. There would be 350 electric lights, 1,000-plus seats, “typhooned air cooled offices” and a private telephone switchboard.

The theater also would have a new name: The Kettler.

In 1923, he tore the Bijou down and built his new movie house for $500,000. It had a giant marquee above the building with his name in scripted letters bookended by floating angels.

When it opened in March 1924 — the first film was “Shadows of Paris” starring Pola Negri, with live music by the Everett Allyn Moses Orchestra — the Post called him a “genius,” declared it “the most beautiful theatre south of Atlanta” and reported that “thousands came in from the streets” to gaze at the flower-bedecked lobby. (Kettler didn’t make his own glittering premiere. Suffering from pneumonia, he listened to all the huzzahs via radio from his Prospect Park home.)

Kettler said maintaining a first-class theater, where 500 carriages from Palm Beach could be lined up on any day, was hard work.

“We let our film, hot from the reel, fall into a canvas bag,” he recalled in a 1949 interview. “Then we had to rewind the whole thing before show time the next day. And as for the screen, we used one of canvas that had to be whitewashed every month. I know because I did it. The more whitewash you got in, the more realistic the picture.”

It sounded like Kettler was settling into a busy career. That’s why a headline one year after he opened the new theater was a bombshell:

“Carl Kettler Drops Out Of Movie World.”

The Post reported that he gave up management of the Kettler, Stanley, Rialto and Beaux Arts theaters for $1 million, which was serious wealth in 1925. He then left for a months-long retreat in Hot Springs, Ark.

Maybe he needed a break.

He’d had personal setbacks. In 1907, he married into another West Palm pioneer family, the Burkhardts. He and wife Maude Burkhardt Kettler had a son, Ralph.

In July 1920, Maude filed for divorce. Her grievances were duly noted in The Post: Kettler “has an erratic mind, is highly excitable, possesses little or no control over his impulses and falls into violent rages.” In August 1920, the divorce was finalized. Then, one year later, they reconciled and remarried. Then, four years later, she filed for divorce again. In 1926, a year after quitting the movie business, he married Rosa “Posey” Phinney in Garland, Tx. They would stay together the rest of his life.

According to marriage records, he was 41 and she was 25.

‘The daddy of this town’

Darden Daves recalls wisps of family stories handed down through the years — how the Kettler theater sign blew down in the ’28 hurricane, how her grandfather probably took a massive hit in the ’29 stock market crash. Her father Ralph, a longtime School Board member, told her Carl took pride in never filing for bankruptcy and always repaying his debts. “When he was flush, he loved to share it with everybody,” she said.

In later years, he ran for municipal judge and a county commission seat, but voters rejected him. He worked as a manager at Burkhardt’s, his ex-wife’s family’s electrical shop, and his last job was managing a warehouse supply division for the School Board in the ‘50s. When he retired, the “consummate bookkeeper” was so industrious that the school system had to hire three people to take his place, Daves said.

And while Daves admitted that divorce in the ‘20s was “very unusual,” Carl and Maude got along famously after their split. He even did the books for her new husband. “His second wife, Posey, said, ‘We were one big family.’”

Daves especially cherishes her grandfather’s civic spirit — he gave valuable land at 1 N. Clematis Street free to the city. He was co-founder of what became the Chamber of Commerce. In a 1964 interview, Kettler recalled how he contributed money to extend Dixie Highway south from Fern Street, and was one of 25 people who put up $5,000 each to finance the extension of Okeechobee Boulevard to Military Trail.

“I’ve had everything and lost everything,” he said in that interview, adding “you really might call me the daddy of this town.”

But after he entered the hospital for glaucoma and died at age 87 in 1972, his early years were largely overlooked. A perfunctory obituary ran inside the Post’s local section and didn’t even specify that he was a city commissioner.

By then, the downtown movie business he birthed and watched progress from silents to sound was on its last legs. His Kettler theater had been converted into the Palms, but demolished for a parking lot seven years earlier. All the old theaters — the Rialto, the Stanley, the Surf, the Florida, the Palace, the Carefree, the Park, the Arcade — are gone now. The only movie complex left in town is at CityPlace.

‘A grand life’

Carl Kettler is buried at West Palm’s historic Woodlawn Cemetery. The family story is that he was given the first plot by Henry Flagler himself.

Today, the cemetery’s aging, weather-beaten stones give off a ghostly air. Kettler’s modest marker looks slightly ajar. But he’s got a prime spot next to the graveyard’s arched entryway.

“He said he wanted to be right at the front so he could greet everybody when they came,” Daves said, laughing at the memory. “He had a grand life.”

The Kettler legacy lives on in their family, too. The Daves’ daughter, Posey, is named after Kettler’s second wife.

And Daves honored her grandfather by naming one of her Rottweilers ‘Carl.’

That’s a compliment?

“In this family, it’s an expression of utmost love,” she said.

Palm Beach Post staff researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this report.

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