Historic Gem

Close to 20 minutes before the show, the pit is covered – there is no orchestra; there is no tuning; the audience cannot hear the dissonant sounds of the cellos, violins and tubas. Nonetheless, the pit serves a purpose. When the time of the spectacle draws nearer, the theatre clientele is graced with a sound much different from that which they may expect. Fifteen minutes before show time, a harmonious sound of air, passing through nearly 1,000 pipes, resonates through the auditorium. And so, The Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ commences an evening at The Tampa Theatre.

Not much has changed at The Tampa Theatre since the night it opened Oct. 15, 1926. Actually, the changes that have occurred have been carefully studied and most of them revoked – a restoration crew has been working hard to bring back the old galore of one of downtown’s most renowned historical sites. The historical landmark, which celebrated its 75th anniversary last year, was originally built as a place to hold vaudeville shows, concerts by the Tampa Theatre Symphony Orchestra and silent films. Today, the venue serves a similar purpose – open year-round, it is a host to concerts, special events, tours and film séances.

The Mighty Wurlitzer still entertains the audiences as it did in the mid-1920s. It was installed when the theatre was built and was used to accompany the silent films. In 1929, only three years after the theatre opened, the organ was used as pre-show entertainment for films.

The theatre was one of the first public buildings in downtown Tampa to have air conditioning.

“The people were drawn not only to the movies and the stars, but they also wanted to see what this new invention was like,” said Tara Schroeder, a Tampa Theatre staff member. Entering the dark and mysterious interior, along with its architectural styles, the cool air still brings relief to those who venture inside. Described by the architect John Eberson as “Florida Mediterranean,” the style also holds a popular name of “Mediterranean Junkyard” among the theatre staff. As the theatres back then were mostly decorated with gold and red, Eberson took it upon himself to get Tampa Theatre out of what he called a “red plush rut.”

He styled the interior with imagination, employing the touches of the Renaissance, Byzantine, Greek Revival, Baroque and others, placing inside Greek statues, Van Gogh-like paintings and a 14-century Spanish Varguenno chest, and draping the walls with tapestry ranging in style and theme from Italian Renaissance to family crests.

With a total of 1,446 seats, the Tampa Theatre is one of the smaller theatres designed by Eberson in his time. As a famous theatre architect, Eberson’s theatres are situated around the country and around the world in places such as New York, Paris and Sydney.

For decades, Tampa Theatre remained a prominent feature of Tampa’s cultural scenery. “People grew up, stealing first kisses in the balcony, following war news with weekly newsreels and celebrating life by coming back to Tampa Theatre week after week,” Schroeder said.

But as the times changed and people gradually began moving to the suburbs, the audiences tapered and profits decreased significantly. Many theatres across the country faced destruction, and 1973 brought the same sad possibility to Tampa Theatre.

“Rather than let our city’s namesake theatre be demolished, the City of Tampa stepped in and assumed its long-term leases,” Schroeder said.

The theatre is now about 75-percent restored, but many projects are still facing the renovators. Among them is a new marquee sign to put on the side of the building.

“The (original) marquee is no longer there. It has been dismantled and beyond repair in the ’70s. That’s actually going to be back, replicated soon. We’re in the middle of a huge marquee refurnishing plan,” Schroeder said of the $500,000 project.

Aside from holding an architectural and social significance, the theatre also has many stories, which make it an interesting place for a visit for anyone. The theatre staff is continually working on assembling the stories of those who have seen the theatre in its prime.

However, the stories don’t just come from those who have visited; they also come from within.

“We do have a ghost, in the theatre. We think we know who it is. All the stories started after a projectionist died in the late ’60s. He died of natural causes, but the gentleman who took his place didn’t last long because of all the shenanigans that took place in the projection booth,” Schroeder said. “The door would open and close, the lights would go on and off, the toggle switches would go on and off.”

But the haunted projection booth was not the only ghastly experience of the theatre.

Schroeder said over the years, many people have had different experiences, but there is one that’s common.

“This happened to two different staff members on two separate occasions. They heard keys jingling and an opening of the door (when they were alone in the theatre),” she said. “And they yelled out ‘Who’s there?’ and walked up the stairs and heard it very distinctly again. Of course, when they got there, nobody was there.”

For more information contact the Tampa Theatre at TampaTheatre.org.

Contact Olga Robakat oraclefeatures@yahoo.com