Named one of Life magazine’s 21 American Wonders in its April 20 issue, the Tampa Theatre sits in a class by itself.
In this day and age, the world seems ever-changing. Modern technology has influenced society to such an extent that one would be hard-pressed to find a surviving remnant of an earlier era.
However, the Bay area is home to one of the nation’s most well-preserved vestiges of Old Hollywood.
Named one of Life magazine’s 21 American Wonders in its April 20 issue, the Tampa Theatre sits in a class by itself. This 80-year-old cultural landmark continues to thrive amid great adversity.
First opened Oct. 15, 1926, the Tampa Theatre was designed by renowned theater architect John Eberson and cost $1.2 million to construct according to tampatheatre.org. Although his creations spanned the globe, Eberson delved into his personal experience when brainstorming on how to craft the Tampa Theatre’s design.
Inspired by his winter visits to Florida, Eberson seamlessly integrated various European styles in his design, successfully encapsulating the multicultural influences of the Bay area.
Eberson’s design was undoubtedly a large contributor to the Theatre’s longevity. Crowds were attracted to its distinctive look, and by the early 1960s the theater was viewed as a throwback to the past.
In fact, rumors about a ghost haunting the theater began to emerge.
After the death of longtime projectionist Foster “Fink” Findley, toggle switches were reported to be spontaneously turning on and off, and many staff members have claimed to hear keys jingling in the theater.
Regardless of the validity of this gossip, the Theatre gained a certain mystique that complemented its nostalgic tone, giving it greater notoriety in the process.
In a time when the concept of going to the movies was still in its infancy, the Theatre helped to popularize the weekly ritual of visiting the local theater.
With its intricate Mediterranean style and old-world dÃ©cor, the Tampa Theatre served as an entrance to another world, providing guests with breathtaking entertainment and a respite from their daily woes.
However, by the ’60s and ’70s, this enthusiasm faded, and in 1973, the Tampa Theatre was on the verge of extinction. Fortunately, Bay area residents banded together to save the institution, and the Arts Council of Hillsborough County assumed the responsibility of managing the Theatre.
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Before its grand re-opening in 1978, the Theatre was officially recognized by the National Register of Historic Places, and it is now considered a Tampa city landmark.
Since then, the Theatre has consistently drawn larger crowds every year, with more than 135,000 attendees in 2006. One of the most culturally significant venues in the city, the Tampa Theatre hosts more than 600 events each year, including screenings of classic and contemporary films, concerts, fundraisers and tours, according to its Web site.
“As the fourth-largest economy in the South behind Houston, Atlanta and Dallas, Tampa Bay’s ongoing population growth provides constant opportunities to introduce the Theatre to new audiences,” said Tara Schroeder, the Theatre’s community relations director. “While our members and patrons feel a strong sense of stewardship for Tampa Theatre and are our best ambassadors, we work hard to cultivate relationships with local companies and groups.”
In addition, the Theatre is actively involved in the community through numerous programs. Demonstrating a devotion to arts education, the Theatre has been a longtime destination for student field trips.
The Theatre also offers “Let’s Make Movies,” a digital filmmaking summer camp for children in grades 3-12. Through this program, the Theatre – in collaboration with USF’s Florida Center for Instructional Technology – hopes to inspire students to follow their artistic aspirations by giving them a hands-on opportunity to create films.
Over the years, the Theatre has spent more than $2 million to maintain its traditional look, thus preserving its pristine appearance.
“Tampa Theatre is one of the most heavily utilized theatres of its kind in the United States,” Schroeder said. “Over the years, every system has received attention, including HVAC, plumbing, electric and roofing.”
Despite the continuous restoration the building requires, the interior remains nearly identical to its original incarnation, save for the concession stands and the seats.
Because the Tampa Theatre is a non-profit organization, it largely depends on community involvement and support to continue its mission. With a staff of 30 people, the Theatre employs more than 200 active volunteers to maintain its operation.
Private support is paramount to the Theatre’s survival, too, since its earnings contribute only 65 percent of its annual operating budget.
In order to draw in the remaining funds, the Theatre is committed to attracting more Bay area residents to participate in its consistent schedule of quality programming for guests of all ages.
For example, on April 27 from 5:30-6:45 p.m., the Theatre is hosting Michael Foley, assistant professor of USF’s dance department. Funded by a USF grant, Joan was filmed on location in Paris and details the final hours of Joan of Arc.
Free of charge and open to the public, this event will be followed by an in-depth discussion with the filmmaker, giving the community a chance for greater appreciation of the arts.
Named “one of ‘America’s 10 best places to Revel in Cinematic Grandeur'” by USA Today, the Tampa Theatre is a stalwart testament to the cultural relevance of the Bay area. Refusing to yield to the changing winds of time, the Theatre has continued to share the importance of the arts with generations of Tampa residents.
Today, nostalgic landmarks such as the Tampa Theatre are in short supply, and the Bay area is truly fortunate to have one of the last surviving movie palaces within its grasp.