Tampa Theatre: A Downtown Classic

In a suburban, multi-plex society, venerable, single-screen Tampa Theatre is a downtown time capsule. One that comes alive, however, with every event in the balconied, 1,446-seat facility.

That’s why the 79-year-old theater, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was listed earlier this year in a USA Today cover story: “10 Great Places to Revel in Cinematic Grandeur.” And such salutes are not infrequent. Most “grand old dames” have been razed for commercial re-development or converted to performing arts venues.

The exterior, which features a seven-story, vertical blade sign and 1920’s marquee replica, is just a tease. Inside it’s all alcoves, tiles, mirrors, statuary, stairs and ambient light – plus a star-bedecked ceiling. It is the architectural archetype for “Florida Mediterranean”: a pastiche of Italian Renaissance, Byzantine, Spanish, Mediterranean, Greek Revival, Baroque and English Tudor. The house organ is a Wurlitzer, and it’s no museum piece. It’s part of the show.

And shows are a decided challenge for one-screen theaters, no matter how palatial their packaging. As a “specialty film house,” Tampa Theatre’s stock in trade is the independent film — and exclusivity. It must pick and choose – and schedule – judiciously.

“We’re really an anachronism; we have to be careful,” says Tampa Theatre president and CEO John Bell. “I don’t define an independent film as one that loses money.”

Bell’s aim is the “well-crafted film” niche – not a haven for foreign-film buffs. “This isn’t reserved for one market segment; everyone should find something in our programming,” says Bell. “From cutting-edge R to ‘Penguins.'”

In the past year that philosophy has been reflected in an eclectic mix ranging from the evocative “Girl With A Pearl Earring” and the mordant “Goodbye, Lenin” to the quirky, Bill Murray comedy “Broken Flowers” and documentaries such as “Super Size Me,” “The Fog of War” and “March of the Penguins.” Projected attendance for the year is 130,000, an increase of about 20 percent from 2004.

Programming, however, is not limited to first-run indies. There’s also the popular Sunday matinee Summer Classic Movie Series along with various film festivals. Nor are events limited to film. Tampa Theatre also hosts concerts (16 in ’05), weddings, graduations, corporate gatherings, field trips, wine tastings, Oscar night galas and tours. It averages 650 events yearly. Part of its charge is to hustle and leverage the historic facility as much as possible. Infrastructure upgrades are an ongoing scenario.

More than half of the Theatre’s $1.6 million budget is derived from earned revenues: box office, concession sales and rental fees. Other sources range from the City of Tampa ($335,000) and Hillsborough County ($42,000) to fund-raising events ($127,000), individual (1,600) memberships ($115,000) and corporate sponsorships ($61,000).

It has created the Marquee Society to recognize and honor those who make will and trust provisions for the Theatre. It also has introduced the Balcony Club to recruit Tampa’s young professionals for membership.

“This year, the Theatre is running at a significant revenue surplus,” says Charlie Britton, chairman of the Tampa Theatre Foundation board and president of Gold Bank Tampa Bay. “Tampa Theatre is capable of sustaining itself. Virtually every night of the week there’s something going on.”

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