Tampa, FL

Hidden History: The Tampa Theatre

Modern Globe

Crowd outside Tampa Theatre at automobile drawing : Tampa, Fla.Photo byCourtesy, Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System

Streaming movies may be the preferred method of entertainment at the moment, but in Tampa one historic movie palace still has a special place in movie-lovers’ hearts. Almost 100-years-old, the Tampa Theatre is a gorgeous piece of Tampa entertainment history. The theater shows everything from silent films to the latest blockbuster. Find out how the theater has stayed open for so long and become an important landmark for Tampa residents.

A product of the studio system

The Tampa Theatre opened on October 15, 1926. It was built by Paramount Studios. Back then, movies studios took part in vertical integration where they owned every part of the movie-making process, — the stars, the directors, the movies and even the theaters the movies were shown in. This system eventually became a monopoly, which the United States Supreme Court put an end to in 1948 with the case United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc.

But in the mid-1920s, lavish movie theaters were being built all around the country. For 25 cents you could be ushered in to an air-conditioned palace and watch the latest “talkie” in plush velvet seats. Tampa Theatre was designed by John Eberson, a Chicago-based architect who wintered in Florida and was inspired by the multi-ethnic opulence he associated with the state:

I was impressed with the colorful scenes that greeted me at Miami, Palm Beach and Tampa. Visions of Italian gardens, Spanish patios, Persian shrines and French formal gardens flashed through my mind, and at once I directed my energies to carrying out these ideas. John Eberson, Tampa Tribune, October 15, 1926

And the style of the Tampa Theatre is certainly unique. The lobby is made to resemble a Mediterranean courtyard with columns, cascading flowers, gargoyles and Spanish tile. The actual theater, which can sit over 1,000 people, has an artificial nighttime sky complete with twinkling lights.

Making history

With the rise of television in the 1950s, movie theaters fell in popularity. Ticket prices increasing combined with the fall of the studio system, led to many historic movie theaters being demolished. In fact, in 1973, the Tampa Theatre was headed in that direction. But enough citizens and local community leaders saw the value of keeping the Tampa Theatre around and the Tampa City Council purchased the theater. It was reopened in 1977, named in the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, and became a Tampa City Landmark in 1988.

Preservation even saved the Theatre’s organ. Known as “The Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ,” it was installed in the Theatre’s early history to accompany silent films. “Talkies” eventually dominated the movie market in the 1930s, so the 1,400-pipe organ was sold to a local church. However, in the 1980s volunteers from The Central Florida Theatre Organ Society (CFTOS) reacquired and reinstalled The Mighty Wurlitzer. Organ music is still played before movies and whenever the Theatre hosts a concert or shows a silent film.

Talk of the town

Nowadays, the Tampa Theatre is a big part of the Tampa Bay social scene. The Tampa Theatre hosts over 700 events every year, including:

  • Movies
  • Live concerts
  • Stand-up shows
  • Educational programs
  • Summer camps for kids

You can also just have a tour of the magnificent movie palace. So if you’re looking to beat the summer heat, head down to Franklin Street to check out a piece of Tampa history.

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