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Architect: John Eberson
First Opened: 15th October 1926 (97 years ago)
Telephone: (813) 274-8981
The Tampa Theatre was designed by noted theatre architect John Eberson, in an Atmospheric style with a Mediterranean courtyard theme. The design featured old world statuary, flowers and shrubbery, stuffed birds, and gargoyles; all set under an artificial nighttime sky featuring twinkling stars. 100 years after its opening it is arguably the best-preserved Atmospheric theatre in the United States.
The theatre was built by the Consolidated Amusements corporation and opened in October 1926 the with silent movie The Ace of Cads starring Adolphe Menjou. According to The Tampa Tribue, tickets to the opening night sold out within two hours of going on sale.
The Saturday opening night consisted of speeches from the mayors of both Jacksonville and Tampa, followed by Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture played by the Tampa Symphony orchestra and directed by John Ingram. Organist Edward J. Weaver went on to play the novelty song “I’m Betting on You”, with the audience singing along from slides projected onto the screen (likely courtesy of the theatre’s Brenkert Brenograph effects projector). Lastly, before the feature presentation, lyric soprano Leonora Cori sang a couple of songs.
Ahead of its opening, the Tampa Theatre was heralded by architect John Eberson in the local media as the “most beautiful and perfect” of the many Atmospheric theatres he had designed over the previous few years.
Eberson went on to explain that the Atmospheric theatre concept come to him in Florida, based upon seeing the value of putting nature to work and borrowing the colors and designs found in the flowers and trees. Eberson felt that the inhabitants of Spain and southern Italy lived under the sun and enjoyed the happiness nature afforded them, and his aim was to try and capture that essence within the auditorium of a theatre for patrons many thousands of miles away in the United States.
Specifically regarding the extravagance of the Tampa Theatre, at the theatre’s opening Eberson noted with the media “we have been allowed to expend as much money as was necessary to produce a show house of high standard” and indeed he went on tell the city of Tampa that the theatre was “a landmark of which it can be justly proud”.
For decades, the Tampa Theatre remained a jewel at the center of the city’s cultural landscape as generations of patrons stole their first kisses in the balcony, followed the world through the newsreels and grew up coming to the theatre week after week.
In the 1940’s, the Tampa Theatre was operated by Paramount Pictures Inc. through their subsidiary E.J. Sparks.
In 1973 the theatre closed, and with the threat of demolition citizens rallied and committees were formed. City leaders became involved, and soon a deal was reached to have the City of Tampa rescue the theatre by assuming its leases. The Arts Council of Hillsborough County agreed to program and manage the theatre with films, concerts and special events. By the time the theatre reopened in early 1978, the Tampa Theatre had become something of a national model on how to save an endangered theatre.
Since its rescue in 1978, the theatre has welcomed over five million guests including over one million school children for school field trips and summer camps in the context of one of Tampa’s largest historic preservation projects.
The theatre’s marquee was replaced in late 2003, culminating in a lighting ceremony which took place on 16th January 2004.
The theatre houses a Mighty Wurlitzer theatre organ (opus 1429) which is played before nightly films. The organ is played and maintained by a team of volunteer organists from the Central Florida Theatre Organ Society.
In late 2017, the theatre closed for six weeks to complete the first phase of its long term restoration plan, a $6 million renovation that updated the electrical systems, re-seated the auditorium with seats designed to match the original look from 1926, added a new and expanded concessions stand and bar, installed a new emergency power system, and protected the building from storms by installing new storm rated windows and doors on the Florida Avenue side of the building. The seating capacity was reduced from 1,446 to 1,238 to improve comfort and legroom. New carpet, designed to match the original 1926 design, was installed, as well as a new grand drape and valance for the proscenium arch also designed to match the original.
The lobby paint and plaster was restored to its original palette by crews from EverGreene Architectural Arts , including the replication of four tapestries to replace the faded and worn tapestries from 1926. The original tapestries were transferred to the Tampa Bay History Center for preservation.
Monthly Balcony to Backstage Tours invite the public to learn more about the majestic movie palace’s history and architecture, and treats guests to a demonstration of the Mighty Wurlitzer theatre organ. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.
Photographs copyright © 2002-2023 Mike Hume / Historic Theatre Photos unless otherwise noted.
Text copyright © 2017-2023 Mike Hume / Historic Theatre Photos.
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