Designed by famed theater architect John Eberson and built by Paramount Pictures, Tampa Theatre opened on Oct. 15, 1926 as one of America’s most elaborate movie palaces.
Like other lavish downtown movie theaters around the country, Tampa Theatre was enormously popular when it opened. For 25 cents the common person could escape into an opulent fantasyland cooled by “man-made air,” enjoy first-class entertainment, and be treated like royalty by platoons of uniformed ushers. For decades, 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.
But by the 1950s, times had changed. The post-war flight to the suburbs was having a damaging effect on downtown businesses, and the movie palaces that lit up America’s main streets were further impacted by 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 operations.
In 1973, Tampa Theatre was likewise slated for demolition. But the citizens rallied, committees were formed, community leaders got involved, and the City Council struck a deal to purchase and preserve the building. By the time Tampa Theatre reopened to the public in January 1977, it had become something of a national model for how to save an endangered theater. It was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, and as a Tampa City Landmark when the designation was created in 1988.
Today, the movie palace is managed by the nonprofit Tampa Theatre Foundation and has become a remarkable success story. As one of the most heavily utilized venues of its kind in the country, Tampa Theatre’s single auditorium hosts more than 600 events each year, including a full schedule of first-run and classic films, live concerts, special events, tours and educational programs. Since its rescue, the Theatre 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.
Tampa Theatre was designed by Chicago-based architect John Eberson, one of the most internationally renowned and prolific movie palace designers of his time. It was built just three years into his “atmospheric” period – a style hallmarked by its realistic night sky, twinkling “stars,” and ornate architecture designed to transport audiences to a moonlit courtyard, replete with clay-tile rooftops, old-world statuary, gargoyles, birds and flowering vines.
In a newspaper article that ran on Tampa Theatre’s opening day, Eberson described 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)
According to Eberson’s writings, Tampa Theatre was his favorite among the atmospheric theatres he built, and it remains today the world’s most complete and best-preserved example of this distinctive style.
THE MIGHTY WURLITZER
The Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ is a magnificent, 1,400-pipe instrument, originally installed to accompany silent films when the Tampa Theatre opened in 1926. As “talkies” took over in the early 1930s, the organ was retired and eventually sold to Bayshore Baptist church. But in the 1980s, the Theatre enlisted the help of volunteers from The Central Florida Theatre Organ Society (CFTOS) to reacquire and reinstall the Mighty Wurlitzer in its original home.
CFTOS members continue to maintain the Mighty Wurlitzer and play the instrument before film screenings as part of their ongoing dedication to the preservation 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.