A history of the Tampa Theatre

The Tampa Theatre, the oldest theater in the city, stands just as it did for its opening, Oct. 15, 1926. Only modest restoration has been conducted, and the theater exhibits its original glory.

One of the few working theaters born of the ’20s, the Tampa Theatre hosts more than 600 events a year. Classic and contemporary films are the main features, but the theater also holds weddings, special community events, live performances, tours, camps and the only live broadcast of the Oscars in the Tampa Bay area.

Moviegoers once lined up to pay 25 cents to see the latest silent film in Tampa’s premier movie theater. Newsreels and cartoon shorts preceded the main feature and dishes were offered as an incentive to attend a show during the depression.

In 1973, after six downtown theaters closed because of disuse, the Tampa Theatre was also in danger of closing. Thanks to Tampa City Councilman Lee Duncan and a loyal community, the theater was saved. It was named a member of The National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and officially declared a Tampa City Landmark in 1988.

Restorations to the theater have been minimal over the past 83 years.

The auditorium’s 1,446 chairs were replaced in the ’70s, said Janice Strand, the program and marketing assistant at the theater.

The theater also receives regular cleaning and maintenance, the methods for which have been much improved over early 20th-century techniques, such as showering the interior with fire hoses, Strand said.

“You can still see places where the water chipped off the paint,” she said.

In 2006, The Tampa Theatre was chosen by the DIY Network to be featured on the
home-improvement show DIY to the Rescue. With help from the Tampa Theatre Restoration Society, DIY remodeled the theater’s dressing rooms and backstage green room. The $250,000 project preserved the original framing, windows, doors, light fixtures and flooring but replaced the outdated electrical and plumbing.  

As a classic touch, bellowing music from the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ can still be heard before the showing of every film.

Bob Baker, a Central Florida Theatre Organ Society volunteer who often plays at the theater, said the organ was originally used to accompany silent films. The instrument plays moving music but is also equipped with sound effects such as gunshots, sirens and horse hooves, which gave viewers a convincing soundtrack to silent films in the ’20s.

The Tampa Theatre remains a nostalgic piece of cinematic history that “continues to be supported by patrons of the arts,” Strand said.