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Sulphur Springs theater on cusp of revival

The Springs Theatre, at 8029 N Nebraska Ave., is currently used as a recording studio.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times (2005)

The Springs Theatre, at 8029 N Nebraska Ave., is currently used as a recording studio.

SULPHUR SPRINGS — The beautiful woman sat relaxing outside a recording studio, just a half-block off of Nebraska Avenue.

It was a January afternoon, and lots of people passed. Yet, none seemed to recognize superstar entertainer Jennifer Lopez.

"She was just sitting out on the deck," said John Stephan, who owns the Springs Theatre. He says J-Lo rehearsed there for performances at the Super Bowl and Saturday Night Live.

"No one noticed," Stephan said. "They didn't even turn their heads."

Even if passers-by noted a resemblance, they likely discounted the possibility that Lopez would be lounging near one of Tampa's most maligned avenues.

But the Springs Theatre, which for 61 years has been one of the most prominent landmarks in Sulphur Springs, is full of surprises.

Over the years, the building has been a first-run movie house, a porn theater and printing company.

These days, its red brick walls house a world-class recording studio that serves artists as diverse as musicians for the Florida Orchestra and Robert Smith, the singer for the Cure.

There's a huge open space with high ceilings that once housed the theater's seats. Rock and pop acts often use the empty space to build sets before they go on national tours. (Lopez's all-white set for her SNL appearance earlier this year was built there, said Stephan, who painted her keyboard white.)

Early next year, the Springs Theatre will open its doors to the public regularly for the first time in years. Stephan plans to inaugurate a concert series. The theater's acoustics and historic ambience make it an ideal concert venue, he said. Stephan is not ready to announce names and dates just yet but hopes to feature mostly national jazz, blues and acoustic acts with small but loyal followings.

"Recording has been our bread-and-butter," said Stephan, who owns the building and runs the studio. "But with the economy the way it is, we're having to find new ways to bring in money."

Concerts are just one part of the vision Stephan and his colleagues have for the theater.

"We want this to be a cultural arts center," said Darwin Westich, the theater's longtime production coordinator. "We can see this whole corner, this whole area, turning into an arts district."

The idea of an arts district in Sulphur Springs — an area with a reputation for poverty, transience and crime — might seem far-fetched. But Westich says it could be burgeoning already. Two arts groups and a new Sulphur Springs history museum are moving into a park around the corner from the theater. One of the arts groups is creating a park full of public art just up the street and has plans to create murals on River Cove Street.

Across the street from the Springs Theatre is the Harbor Club, another landmark that has been vacant for about a year. Its new owners haven't announced plans, but Westich and Stephan hope it will be used for arts or entertainment. And the theater itself could be a venue for music, theater, dance and cinema.

Whatever happens to the neighborhood, though, the Springs Theatre may be the centerpiece.

The current building is actually the third theater on that site. One building was apparently an open-air playhouse, the second a movie theater. Both burned down. A photograph in a back room of the building shows Nebraska Avenue in 1923, packed with thriving businesses, Model T's in every parking space and a large marquee that simply says "theater" in the building where the Springs now stands.

Stephan has found contradictory records about his building's origins. Some say it was built in 1938, others say 1944.

Much of the architectural detail of the original movie house remains, although the theater has been redesigned and renovated several times. (When Stephan took over, its red brick walls were covered with plasterboard and its ornate ceilings were hidden behind '70s style drop ceilings.) Today, a small bathroom is adjacent to what was once the projection booth. On the wall opposite the toilet, a small window, a few inches square, allowed the projectionist to watch the movie while using the restroom.

Stephan bought the building 12 years ago. He had been operating a tiny studio out of a North Tampa condo.

"I had been thinking of things I wanted to do, and I needed a lot more space than I had," said Stephan, who has a special affinity for big band jazz.

His friend Bill Mason has a recording studio across the street from the Springs Theatre, in an old bank building. He told Stephan the theater building was for sale. It was love at first sight.

"I kept thinking about whether I could afford it," Stephan said. "No matter how many times I thought about it, the answer was always no. So I bought it anyway."

Marty Clear can be reached at mclear@tampabay.rr.com.

Sulphur Springs theater on cusp of revival 12/17/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 17, 2009 3:30am]

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