Tampa Theatre: 90 years of ‘a beautiful friendship’

Mixing beloved classics with modern masterpieces, the Tampa Theatre has opened an doors to its eclectic and passionate audience for 90 years. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/TAMPA THEATRE

A staple in the Tampa bay arts and culture community, the Tampa Theatre celebrated its 90th birthday Saturday, a week before its fourth annual A Nightmare on Franklin Street Halloween movie series is set to begin.

To commemorate the landmark anniversary, the theater has decided to play four films for just a quarter each, since a ticket only cost 25 cents when doors first opened in 1926.

Employees at the venue thought a lot about what movies to show. Some options included historically significant movies, such as “Casablanca” or the first movie ever shown at the Tampa Theatre on its opening night in 1926: “The Ace of Cads” starring Adolphe Menjou. 

But because they already played the Humphrey Bogart classic flick a few weeks prior, and because there are no surviving prints of the inaugural film, they settled on another theme instead.

“We decided that the theme that would be appropriate would be movies that celebrate the art of the cinema, or movies that celebrate movies,” Jill Witecki, the director of marketing and community relations at the Tampa Theatre, said.

The lineup started with “Hugo,” which celebrates the beginnings of cinema, followed by “The Artist,” which looks at the movie industry’s shift from silent films to ‘talkies’ and how it affected actors. The third movie, “The Cameraman,” a silent film about a moviemaker, gave the theatre a chance to try something unique.

“It gave us the opportunity to showcase our theater organ, which is still original to the building,” Witecki said. “This is its original home and it’s one of the only theatre organs in the country that is still in its original home and is still played basically every day before the different films.”

The theater hired a guest organist from Atlantic City who played live music during the movie.

“It gave folks the experience of really what it was like to sit in this theatre in 1926 and watch a silent movie with a live musician,” Witecki said.

The final movie of the day, “Cinema Paradiso,” tells the story of a boy who grows up in a movie theater. It also happens to be a favorite of the theater’s president and CEO, John Bell.

The timing was opportune, as Tampa Theatre’s 25th annual Summer Classics series ended a month ago, and its fourth annual A Nightmare on Franklin Street Halloween series starts tomorrow.

In summer, it played classics that were also celebrating landmark anniversaries such as “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which celebrated its 35th anniversary; “Forbidden Planet,” which celebrated its 60th; and “M,” which was the oldest movie in the lineup, at 85 years old. This series has been known to sell as many as 10,800 tickets over the course of the summer.

On Friday — the Old-School Opener day — the Halloween series will start with a ghost tour at 2 p.m. This 90-minute tour will explore the theatre and it aims to teach attendees why it is “known as one of the most haunted buildings in town.”

This will then be followed by a screening of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” at 7:30 p.m. and the night will be capped off with “Friday the 13th” at 10 p.m.

The series will continue until Oct. 31 with a schedule full of diverse Halloween-themed movies. These include comedies such as “Beetlejuice,” family friendly movies such as “Hocus Pocus” and classics like “The Omen.” 

There is even Stephen King Sunday featuring “Carrie,” “Misery” and “Creepshow.”

At 90 years old, the Tampa Theatre does not plan stick to pre-established traditions in order to attract guests. This year, it will be hosting its first-ever New Year’s Eve Wrap Party, with an “Animal House” theme. 

“There are plenty of (opportunities to) get dressed up and put on your sequined dress and your heels and go out to some hoity toity New Year’s Eve party,” Witecki said. “We want to be the party where it’s OK to dress in costume and put on your toga and come on down to Tampa Theatre.”

Tickets will go on sale at noon on Friday for $99 per person, with a $10 discount for Tampa Theatre members.