To the west of the bustling downtowns of Dade City and Zephyrhills – prime destinations for antique shoppers and history buffs – sits a riverside city conceived in romance during the heyday of silent movies. Just two blocks off busy US 19, downtown New Port Richey is a step into another world.
Step Into the Star-Studded Past
In 1915, Thomas Meighan was the Brad Pitt of his day, paid $10,000 a week to star in silent movies with leading ladies like Gloria Swanson and Mary Pickford. His brother encouraged him to invest in Florida land, in a place where actor Earl Benham had purchased a palm hammock above the meandering Pithlochascotee River – the “Cotee,” as locals call it.
Meighan built a grand retreat in Jasmine Point, a Spanish Mission mansion with 13 rooms, six baths, and a 65,000-gallon swimming pool. With Benham’s Hollywood connections, the rich and famous invested in the area, including comedian Ed Wynn, champion golfer Gene Sarazen, and actor Raymond Hitchcock.
A cruise up the Cotee with Captain Ray Kelly on the Miss Daisy – reservations a must – unveils New Port Richey’s Hollywood connections. On a slow drive down shady Grand Boulevard, pull off into Cotee River Park, where the Riverwalk showcases the beauty that brought the stars out under the palms.
Learn About the Not-So-Silent Screen
In a corner of what is now the Richey Suncoast Theater, memorabilia recalls our fascination with the stars. The Meighan Theatre opened on July 4, 1926. This cinema – with elaborate decorative touches and a sweeping balcony – celebrated the greats of its day. Meighan’s film “The New Klondike” was screened on opening day, and the actor himself flipped the switch for sound the day that “talkies” arrived in town.
Here’s Ronald Reagan, from his acting days; Phil Silvers, as Sgt. Bilko; and Orson Welles, in the triumph of “Citizen Kane.”
A vibrant playhouse for decades, the Richey Suncoast Theater now offers 6 major performances each year. The 323-seat theater is also a venue for one-night shows, and gives back to the community by raising scholarship funds for local students in the performing arts.
Explore Downtown New Port Richey for a Taste of Hollywood in Florida
When the Hacienda Hotel opened in 1927, 800 people gathered to experience this Moorish fantasy along the Cotee. It became a winter destination for the famous – Gloria Swanson and Ring Lardner were among them. Awaiting restoration, the hotel anchors Sims Park, a riverside beauty spot where children enjoy the immense playground under the oaks.
Stroll the sidewalks past eateries and galleries to discover a series of five murals showcasing local history, including the colorful “Dining and Dancing at the Hacienda Hotel in the 1920s,” a virtual parade of stardom. The waving flags mark the Veteran’s Walk at Orange Lake Park, which circles around to the West Pasco Historical Museum, another place to touch the past.
Explore downtown New Port Richey for a taste of Hollywood in Florida, a tribute to the silver screen’s past. Like its sister cities of Zephyrhills and Dade City, it is deeply rooted in its history, but here, the stars shine brighter.
To plan your own getaway to Pasco County, visit www.visitpasco.net.