Twenty years ago, Tara Schroeder signed into work at Tampa Theatre for the first time, on a backstage wall collecting employee names since the movie palace opened in 1926.
A few weeks from now Schroeder will sign out, after resigning her position as Tampa Theatre's director of programming and marketing. She's returning to her birthplace, New Orleans, rejoining a family and city she never entirely left behind.
"I've been here 20 years and going back to New Orleans as often as I can," Schroeder, 49, said Wednesday, choking back tears. "I realized that I miss my family and I want to go home.
"I adore Tampa Theatre and everyone here, the staff, the volunteers, my job — walking away from this is one of the most difficult things I've ever done in my life."
Since 1992, Schroeder has been the guiding force in booking classic and cutting-edge movies for the historic venue, organizing special events, film festivals and concerts, and letting Tampa Bay residents know about them. This month dozens of children are attending a digital filmmaking summer camp that Schroeder created a decade ago.
If you enjoyed any Tampa Theatre event over the past 20 years, Schroeder is a big reason why.
"For many people she's the face of the theater," said John Bell, Tampa Theatre president and CEO for 25 years. "When people think of the theater a lot of people think of Tara. She's so engaging and so personable. She attracted so many friends in the community, who in turn were attracted to the theater. She's also a ridiculously hard worker ... I've never worked with anybody who was as dedicated to the job as she is."
Full disclosure: Over the years Schroeder became a dear friend of mine, and I'm certainly not the only person who feels that way. Her dealings have always been professional, and her back-of-the-bus sense of humor irresistible. Tampa Bay is losing a special person here.
Schroeder doesn't yet have employment set in New Orleans. "There are some gurgles of opportunities that I'm exploring," she said. "My only two requirements are that I work someplace I can feel passionate about, and is helping the community."
Bell hopes to hire a replacement by September, and knows finding another Tara Schroeder will be difficult.
"The skill sets we can replace, in terms of functional responsibilities of the job," Bell said. "What's going to probably be impossible to replace is the personal relationships she has built with people in town.
"We'll be fine, but it's something I never really contemplated having to go through."
Schroeder and Bell's relationship stretches back to 1988, when both were members of the League of Historic American Theaters, advocating preservation of historic movie houses. Bell was impressed with the Mount Vernon College graduate's publishing skills, and how she engaged people at conferences. He hired Schroeder when she was planning a return to New Orleans, essentially delaying the move by two decades.
I'm going to miss this woman. A lot of people will.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365.