The first film shown at Tampa Theatre, a 1926 silent romance known as Ace of Cads, disappeared forever. It was stored on nitrate film, which is flammable and prone to combust. It also decayed easily.
Like most films shown before 1929, the movie starring Adolphe Menjou vanished over the decades, leaving a void in the history of American film and culture.
Tampa Theatre has tried to slow this deterioration of time. Behind the stage is a lighting board that includes red switches, red bulbs and big white levers that still operate the stage lights, just as when the theater opened.
"It's still hot," theater president and chief executive John Bell said.
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The two 35mm projectors, as bulky as Studebakers, date back to the 1960s. A projectionist in the tight booth four stories up either splices the five or six 20-minute reels that make up a movie or uses both of the theater's projectors in concert, skillfully switching between reels as each one ends.
But, like Kodak film, typewriters and airport concourse goodbye kisses, the film era is setting. It's being replaced by a digital one, which is better able to preserve movies forever.
With movie distributors signaling that they'll shift almost exclusively into digital delivery in a year or so, Tampa Theatre sped up its plans for a $150,000 fundraising campaign to buy a digital projector and matching sound equipment.
"If we didn't move quickly, we were just going to be left behind," Bell said.
Tampa Theatre, often referred to as the city's jewel with its Mediterranean courtyard, old world statues and celestial ceiling, was built in 1926 for a then-astonishing $1 million and with $250,000 in furnishings. Over the years, it became a time capsule, replete with an organist who rose out of the basement to play before the main screening and a Sunday classic film series that consistently draws 700.
It brought people downtown in the 1980s and '90s, when the urban core was a cultural wasteland of boarded-up buildings or business-only high-rises.
"For the longest time, we were this lonely beacon of light in this otherwise desolate downtown," said Bell, who has been running the theater since 1985.
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Downtown redevelopment over the past seven or eight years has added a waterfront park, two museums and the Riverwalk and restored the 1926 Floridan Hotel. The renaissance has brought thousands of people to live downtown. Yet the theater remains reliant on contributions from memberships, sponsorships and individual gifts.
Of its $1.7 million annual operating budget, 40 percent comes from contributions. The city of Tampa provides an annual $225,000 for baseline maintenance.
"We break even every year," Bell said.
But it leaves little room for major improvements, which come from fundraising campaigns, including the latest for the digital projector.
Of 39,000 movie screens nationwide and 5,732 movie theaters, 31,419 screens and 3,602 theaters have converted to digital projection, said Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research at the National Association of Theatre Owners. Large movies chains like AMC and Regal Cinemas have mostly converted.
"They should be finished this year," he said. "And there are many more pending."
While the theater association has helped broker agreements between movie distributors and theaters to help share costs of technological upgrades, small art houses and historic venues like Tampa Theatre are generally turning to fundraising to update their equipment.
"Depending on the economics of the situations and the markets they're in, some of them are turning to their patrons for help," Corcoran said.
Last year, owners of the Ruskin Family Drive-In, which opened in 1952 and remains one of just six drive-ins in Florida, launched a $150,000 campaign to buy a digital projector.
Tampa Theatre has raised about $40,000 in nearly five weeks, Bell said. Of the total cost of the project, $25,000 will go toward new sound equipment.
"We're encouraged," Bell said. "There's a love affair this community has with this theater. I'm confident we'll get there."
Justin George can be reached at [email protected], (813) 226-3368 or Twitter @justingeorge.