Built in 1926 as one of America’s most elaborate movie palaces, the Tampa Theatre today is a passionately protected and beloved community landmark. Designed by famed theater architect John Eberson, it is a superior example of his “atmospheric” style of design. Upon entering under the Theatre’s “blade sign” marquee, audiences are transported to a lavish, romantic Mediterranean courtyard, replete with old-world statuary, flowers and gargoyles. Over it all is a realistic night sky filled with twinkling stars.
Like other lavish downtown movie palaces around the country, Tampa Theatre was enormously popular when it opened. For the first time in history, the common person had access to opulence on a scale never before imagined. For 25 cents they could escape into a fantasyland for two hours, enjoy first-class entertainment and be treated like royalty by uniformed platoons of ushers and attendants. By the end of the 1920s, more than 90 million Americans were going to the movies every week. For several decades, Tampa Theatre remained a jewel at the center of Tampa’s cultural landscape. Generations of people stole their first kisses in the balcony, followed the world through the newsreels and grew up coming to the Theatre week after week.
But by the 1960s, times had changed. America’s flight to the suburbs was having a damaging effect on downtown businesses, and among the hardest hit were the movie palaces that lit up America’s main streets, especially with the advent of television. Audiences dwindled and costs rose. Many of our nation’s finest movie palaces were demolished as the land beneath them became more valuable than the theater’s operations.
In 1973, Tampa Theatre faced the same fate. But Tampa’s citizens rallied. Committees were formed, community leaders got involved, and soon a deal was reached to have the City rescue the Theatre. By the time the Theatre reopened to the public in January 1977, it had become something of a national model on how to save an endangered theater.
Today, the Theatre is managed by the not-for-profit Tampa Theatre Foundation and is a remarkable success story. As one of the most heavily utilized venues of its kind in the United States, Tampa Theatre’s single auditorium hosts more than 600 events each year, including a full schedule of first-run and classic films, concerts, special events, corporate events, tours and educational programs.
Since being rescued in 1977, Tampa Theater has welcomed more than 5 million visitors to downtown Tampa — including 1 million school children for field trips and summer camps — all within the context of one of Tampa’s largest historic preservation projects.
Community support and contributions are critical to the Theatre’s continued vitality. In spite of its successes, the Theatre only earns about 60% of its annual operating budget through ticket and concession income. Contributions to the Tampa Theatre Foundation from individuals, companies and foundations help make up difference and keep the Theatre accessible and affordable for everyone.
Tampa Theatre was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, is a Tampa City Landmark, and is a proud member of the League of Historic American Theatres and the Art House Convergence.
A catapult for the imagination since 1926, Tampa Theatre is a symbol of our city’s glorious past and bright future. Tampa Theatre is a passionately protected landmark and one of America’s best-preserved examples of grand movie palace architecture. The mission of the Tampa Theatre is to protect, preserve and program the Theatre as a creative film and cultural center for our community.
Tampa Theatre was designed and built by John Eberson, and became the architect’s favorite example of his “atmospheric” style of design. As one of the most internationally renowned and prolific movie palace designers of his time, Eberson built about 100 theaters all over the world. Examples of his work still survive in Miami; Chicago; Ohio; Michigan; New York; Texas; Paris, France; and Sydney, Australia.
In a newspaper article that appeared on Tampa Theatre’s opening day, Eberson told of how Florida inspired his signature style: “I have been wintering in Florida for the past several years, and it is from this state that I got the atmospheric idea. 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.” – Tampa Tribune, October 15, 1926.
THE MIGHTY WURLITZER
The Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ is a magnificent three-manual, 14-rank instrument, which was originally installed when the Tampa Theatre opened in 1926 to accompany silent films. Although the Organ was relocated to a radio station and then a church during the Theatre’s history, it was found, rescued and reinstalled by volunteer members of The Central Florida Theatre Organ Society (CFTOS) in the 1980s.
To this day, CFTOS members maintain the Mighty Wurlitzer and play the instrument before almost every film screening as part of their ongoing dedication to the preservation of the treasured art form of the theatre pipe organ and its music. Tampa Theatre also hosts a number of guest organists each year for concerts and special silent film events.
Photo by Joe Roberts