Friday, January 19, 2018
News Roundup

Sunday Conversation: New pitcher of old Tampa Theatre dreams big

Jill Revelle Witecki, 35, former public relations director at Busch Gardens, recently took the job as marketing director for the historic Tampa Theatre, an ornate palace that looks like a Mediterranean courtyard. It shows old movies and Tampa premieres of first-run movies like The King's Speech and hosts live performances. A graduate of Bloomingdale High School and the University of Missouri, Witecki double-majored in journalism and drama. She married Mark Witecki, an engineer with Progress Energy, Saturday. After college, she worked as a reporter for the Tampa Tribune. She talked about her experiences and plans with Times staff writer Philip Morgan.

What drew you to this job?

The first time I ever came to the Tampa Theatre was when I was in high school. We came here for a French culture day program and got to see what probably was one of the most scandalous films that any of us had ever seen as high school students, as part of an educational program … I don't remember (the name of the movie). It doesn't matter. But what I do remember is walking into the lobby of this theater and just being completely overwhelmed by how beautiful a space it was, the sense of history that was here …

Walking into it, it's truly another world. The theater was built in 1926 by an architect named John Eberson. Eberson was the master of this style of theater, of these atmospheric theaters. Back then, it was the movie companies that built the theaters … The Tampa Theatre was actually built with Paramount money.

Any particular part of the theater that you like best?

It's the whole thing. Part of it is just the memories here. Everyone you talk to … who's been in Tampa for any length of time has a Tampa Theatre story: the first date that they brought to the Tampa Theatre, the first time they saw Casablanca on the big screen and it was at Tampa Theatre — and that may have just been last year.

Up in my office, one of the little treasures that I discovered waiting for me when I got here is two old straw hats. One's obviously a man's hat and one's a lady's hat that were found several years ago in a crawl space, with a bottle of booze and a Tampa Tribune comic strip from 1926 … There's such life and history here. People have fallen in love here, both on screen and in the audience and apparently in the crawl spaces.

What do you want to accomplish in the new job?

Many people that you talk to and ask, Okay, what do you know about the Tampa Theatre? "Oh, Tampa Theatre, that's that old theater that shows old movies." And that's my No. 1 goal starting here, is to educate people and really get folks in this community to know that, yes, we are an old theater that shows old movies, but we do a heck of a lot more than that. This really is a cool place to be, it's an easy place to get to …

And with the first-run movies, there's no reason if you're looking at movie times over the weekend that Tampa Theatre shouldn't be part of what you're looking at.

What was the transition like from news reporting to marketing and public relations?

I went into it with the notion that PR wasn't that different from journalism and marketing wasn't that different from PR in that it's all storytelling. It's figuring out what the interesting parts of the situation are and then crafting that story for an audience.

You joke that you covered the weird beat for the Tribune. What was the job like?

Whenever they came up with something that they didn't know what to do with, it kind of got funneled to me. As such, I got to write pieces on Internet psychics. I wrote a piece on a local kid who was trying to break the world's record for the largest rubber band ball. Tons of holiday pieces. I ended up writing for the food section several times and … doing a column, "The Quarterlifer,'' which was kind of a 20-something single girl's view of Tampa and dating and popular culture and whatever else that came across my desk that would make interesting column fodder for the week. And that ran for a year and a half, until I left the paper. And it was a ton of fun, and I still run into people who say, "Oh, I remember you, I remember 'The Quarterlifer.' I used to read that."

Tell us about the resident ghost.

Fink Finley. Fink was a projectionist for the Tampa Theatre back in the '50s and a beloved character here when he was alive, and worked to the end of this days here. And after he died the new projectionist experienced some issues. One of the stories that I heard was, of course, in those days and even now, when running a 35mm film, the projectionist had to watch very carefully for marks in the corner of the film to let him know when it was time to switch from one (reel) to the other. … And, as the story goes, the exact moment when that projectionist should have been switching from one to the other, doors in the projection booth would slam closed and try to distract him from what he was supposed to be doing.

There's been stories over the years of lights turning off and on, doors opening and closing, people seeing and hearing and feeling weird things up in the balcony. And that has all been attributed to Fink.

And even now, when the computers crash, that's obviously Fink's doing. When a lightbulb burns out, clearly Fink has something to do with it. So I think he's kind of become the scapegoat for all of the technical problems in the theater.

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