The Plaza Theatre marquis not only lights up 14th Avenue in Historic Downtown Vero Beach, it is also a beacon into the past. It has been 60 years since credits rolled inside the historic theater, once the centerpiece of a bustling downtown. Now filmmaker Dale Metz is bringing the iconic theater back to life with a chronicled history.
The theater originally opened to much fanfare on Oct. 24, 1924 with a showing of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which became the impetus for the formation of an independent Indian River County.
“In 1925 we were part of St. Lucie County,” explains Bob Brackett, who in 1989 purchased the theater where he had ushered as a teenager. “Somebody decided to show movies on Sunday afternoon. The sheriff came and padlocked the door. That caused an outrage. It was a spark that ignited two new counties.”
The theater, which went by various names over the years, closed its doors in June 1985 with a showing of “Desperately Seeking Susan.”
“The theater is part of the history of Indian River County. The fact that Dale has decided to do a documentary has been nice, especially since this next year is our centennial year and that’s very much a part of the history,” says Brackett. “It’s important that we preserve historic things as landmarks to who we are and where we came from. We’re too quick to tear down good old buildings in order to put up new ones that are not as good. We have become a throw-away society.”
Metz, who attended Vero Beach High School, says his decision to make the film stemmed from his family’s connections to the theater. His maternal great-grandfather, Hudson Baker, built the theater along with many of the first buildings in Vero Beach. His paternal great-grandfather, Henry Metz, was one of its first projectionists and was among those arrested for breaking the St. Lucie County ‘blue laws’ regarding Sunday openings.
After graduating from Florida State University, Metz joined the fire department in Casselberry, a small town in Central Florida, where he worked for the next 25 years, retiring as deputy fire chief of the City of Casselberry in 2009. Finding himself at loose ends, Metz began to spend more time on what had previously been his hobby.
“I’ve always had a passion for photography,” says Metz, who transitioned from photography into film after realizing that with current technology, he could use the same equipment to shoot still images and video. He says part of the film lure was its interaction with people.
“In my job as deputy fire chief, a lot of what I did professionally was to manage and organize. I enjoyed working with a team in a collaborative approach to work. I missed that as a photographer. Film work involves a lot of pre-production, planning, casting and scriptwriting. So, there’s a lot of collaboration. There’s a big team effort that goes into making a film.”
Metz is now firmly entrenched in his second career as an independent filmmaker of predominately short films, and has begun to garner recognition at festivals all around the world. His film “An Orphan in Time” won first place in the Best Film category in Tampa, and another has been screened at an international film festival in Paris.
Metz has shot roughly 30 films since his first, “Shadow Speak,” in 2010.
“It was definitely a first effort. I like to think I’ve grown a lot since then,” says Metz. “To grow as a filmmaker, you need to dabble in different genres. You learn a little bit from each of those experiences.”
“Vero Theatre” is Metz’s first foray into the documentary genre.
“With documentaries, there’s so much material and so many different ways you can take the work that it’s hard to settle into exactly what are going to be the heavy hitting points you need to make. You can get really mired down in a project.”
In addition to interviewing his parents, Jack and Linda Metz, Brackett and other local historians, Metz also gathered fond recollections from Alma Lee Loy, Judy and Pat Luther, and Jack Chestnut Jr.
“As I was getting this footage, what connected with me emotionally was just being in that empty theater. I saw some of my most favorite movies as a kid. I’ll be excited for Vero to see it. I hope that it elicits some good memories,” says Metz, adding that the theater was a cornerstone of the town’s activities.
“When I grew up and when my parents grew up and when their parents were in Vero, there was nothing else to do. As my mom put it, you either went to the beach or you went to the theater.”
“It’s incredible that we have a local filmmaker. We have a Florida filmmaker who has these strong connections to Vero and is moved to make a film about one of our iconic places,” says Jerusha Stewart, Vero Beach Wine and Film Festival founder. “The theater may be closed, and here it is still making movie history.”
She says the world premiere of “Vero Theatre” will be screened free to the public at the June 2019 festival as part of the city’s Centennial Celebration. At the 2018 festival, Metz screened “A Face in the Crowd,” which explores the heroin abuse pandemic.
“He’s [Metz] got quite a breadth as a filmmaker. The film he entered in 2018 was a dramatic work, and now he’s on the other side with a large documentary. We were quite impressed with that and the number of films he’s made,” says Stewart.
This labor of love has taken on a life of its own, but Metz says he loves the challenge.
“I love trying to do new things. That’s what I enjoyed about photography initially, the marriage of technology and art. And film just amplifies that,” he explains.
“What has surprised me the most about filmmaking is how hard it is to get right. Anybody can grab a camera and shoot and call it a film. I always am impacted by films that make you feel something. Obviously, the goal is to entertain or convey a message. Beyond all of that, if I can create a film that makes you feel some way, then I feel like I’ve done a good job.”
For more information about Metz, visit dalemetz.com. For information about the Vero Beach Wine and Film Festival, visit vbwff.com.