TAMPA, FL., August 23, 2017 – You know how it sounds really trite when someone says “You’ve never seen anything like it in your life.” You need to see the inside of the Tampa Theater to know the true meaning of that exclamation.
Because really, there’s nothing like it.
The multi-use theater was built in 1926, epitomizing the “movie palace” grandeur of that time. Before the lights go down, audiences sit in wonder, surrounded by a lavish, romantic Mediterranean-style courtyard, adorned with old-world statuary, flower, and gargoyles. Over
Over it all is a realistic night sky filled with twinkling stars.
And till this day, the Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ still emerges from the middle of the stage just before every performance, played by keyboard aficionados who have the heart and emotion born during silent movie days.
Patrons can enjoy old cinema favorites, new indie films, comedians, guitar players, and even wine tasting events hosted by the theatre.
But as with all beautiful masterpieces, time can take a toll on the physical structure, and over the years the theatre has aged. Management entered planning stages of a major capital campaign about 10 years ago when the economy tanked.
A couple of years later, they regrouped and started planning again. The “Cush Your Tush” campaign to replace the seats is the current and final chapter of a campaign that is also addressing several infrastructural needs. And just like the theatre is matchless with new chairs that are vintage and exquisite.
And just like the Theatre is matchless, these new chairs are vintage, and exquisite. Director of Marketing & Community Relations, Jill Witecki, recently took a breath from the frenzy to share what’s been going on.
Sheryl Kay: Please give us a little background on the Theatre.
Jill Witecki: John Eberson, a Chicago-based architect, knew that the trend in movie palace architecture was to model them after opera houses, crystal chandeliers, ornate ceilings, gold-leaf accents, marble columns, and the like. They were beautiful but very expensive to build.
So Eberson approached his clients, including Tampa Theatre’s parent company, Paramount, with this proposition: a theater like nobody had ever seen before that was equally stunning, but half the cost.
He replaced ornate ceilings with a painted “night sky,” crystal chandeliers with tiny light-bulb “stars,” marble columns and gold leaf with molded plaster ornamentation, and called it an “atmospheric theatre,” designed to transport his guests out of their everyday lives and into the romantic Mediterranean at night.
Out of the 100 or so theaters that Eberson designed, 34 were atmospherics. And of those 34, only a handful remain standing.
SK: Does anyone know why it was named “theatre” instead of “theater”
JW: That’s Mr. Eberson’s doing. We’ve been an –re Theatre since day one.
SK: Why did the theatre close in 1973?
JW: Even though it was financed by the movie studios in the early days, that all came to an end in 1948, when the Supreme Court ruled that the movie industry was a monopoly and that they could not continue to make, distribute AND showcase the movies.
The studios decided to dump the showcase aspect, and for the first time in history, these major movie palaces were left to turn a profit on their own. Overnight, the one-screen theatre became a failing business model, and many shut down in short order as the land beneath them became more valuable than the theater operation sitting on it. But Tampa Theatre persisted. We survived the ‘50s, limped through the ‘60s and clawed our way into the ‘70s. But by the early 1970s, we, too, had a date with the wrecking ball.
But Tampa Theatre persisted. We survived the ‘50s, limped through the ‘60s and clawed our way into the ‘70s. But by the early 1970s, we, too, had a date with the wrecking ball.
Still, there were those in the community who didn’t want to see a 50-year-old Eberson masterpiece demolished. The owners of the theatre offered to sell the building to the City of Tampa for $1. Citizens stepped forward, committees were formed. Finally, after three years of meetings and building support, the city council voted 4 to 3 to purchase the building for a dollar and save the Tampa Theatre in 1976.
After some restoration work – including installing the current red seats, carpet, and main drape –the building was officially reopened to the public in January 1977.
SK: Having spoken to several locals who’ve attended performances there for the past several decades, many said the seats were definitely a bone of contention–old, narrow, many broken. Why change them now? Was it a financial decision?
JW: About five years ago, the number one complaint from our patrons was about the sound quality, and they were right. This building was built for the unamplified, acoustic sound of the 21-piece orchestra and Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ that accompanied the silent films.
Then-modern movie speakers had to pump out a lot of sound to fill a room this big, and that sound had billions of surfaces to bounce off of in the ornate auditorium, which tended to muddy what the audience could hear.
When changes in the film distribution industry pushed us to upgrade to digital cinema, we also upgraded the sound. And almost to the day after we did, the number one patron complaint became our uncomfortable seats.
The lifespan of a theater seat tops out at around 25 years, and these have been in place for 40.
SK: Almost all theaters are going to these mechanical big pleather-type seats now. Why is the Theatre going backward, to the original seat design?
JW: As those entrusted by the community to care for this majestic landmark, we take very seriously our mission to preserve and protect the Tampa Theatre. Given that this is the most complete Eberson atmospheric remaining in the world, we knew that nothing short of a tirelessly researched, authentic restoration would be appropriate.
SK: What else will be part of the restoration, like those tiny toilet seats?
JW: The “tot’s pot” toilets are original to the building. Those aren’t going anywhere.
SK: How much is this all costing? And what’s the timing?
JW: This first phase of work will total $6 million, which has been raised through a combination of board support, private gifts, and state and local government grants. Some of the work, like the Florida Avenue windows and the electrical upgrades, are already complete. The bulk of the remaining work will be done in November and December, when we will shut down for six weeks.
We expect to reopen right before the holidays at the end of December.
SK: What other restoration work may be looked at in the future?
JW: A building of this magnitude will always have restoration and preservation projects, and there will certainly be one or more major phases of money to raise and work to do after this first phase is complete. Chief among them will be the complete restoration of the paint and plaster in the auditorium.
SK: Given Busch Gardens and Adventure Islands and our beaches, do you think tourists generally plan for a visit to the Theatre?
JW: The Tampa Bay area has so many incredible outdoor experiences to offer, like theme parks, water sports and beaches. But there’s also something to be said for a 90-year tradition of air-conditioned entertainment!