Editorial: It’s time to renew community’s commitment to Tampa Theatre

A freshly painted griffin adorns the upper lobby of the Tampa Theatre, now underghoing a $6 million renovation that includes replacing all 1,41o seats. [JAMES BORCHUCK   |   Times]
A freshly painted griffin adorns the upper lobby of the Tampa Theatre, now underghoing a $6 million renovation that includes replacing all 1,41o seats. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published November 17 2017
Updated November 17 2017

New attention to downtown Tampa as a place to live, work and play is transforming the area at a dizzying pace. Credit goes to recent projects, both public and private, such as the Tampa River Walk, new residential towers, a University of South Florida health center, Water Works Park, and the new community crossroads of Curtis Hixon Park, where the annual Winter Village opens this weekend.

But one key piece of downtown’s new appeal has stood since 1926, enjoying the boom times and weathering the busts, dodging demolition in the 1970s and now poised to enter a new era as a catalyst for economic development along the Franklin Street corridor and beyond.

The Tampa Theatre has survived because the community came to its rescue as once-popular downtown movie houses faded away, victims of suburban flight and competing land uses. Today, with top video entertainment as close as the screen at your home or the one in your hand, people are turning away from movie houses again.

At the same time, though, they’re coming back downtown.

Managers with the not-for-profit Tampa Theatre Foundation are trying to capitalize on this trend with a combination of movies, live acts and rentals that so far have covered some 60 percent of the theater’s annual operating budget. The rest comes through contributions from individuals, companies and foundations.

It’s a balancing act, with $2.4 million in revenue and $2.2 million in expenses reported in 2015, the most recent tax filing available.

But even as it toils to make ends meet, the foundation has gathered money to launch the theater’s next phase.

The Tampa Theatre is closed six weeks for work that includes returning the lobby, seats, carpet and curtains to their look on opening day 91 years ago. When it reopens in late December, the velvet seats, carpet and main curtain — all red, installed in 1976 — will be gone.

Perhaps the most welcome change will be bigger, more comfortable seats. That’s why the place to make a contribution is cushyourtush.org. Or if you prefer getting off your tush, bring your money straight to the box office at 711 S. Franklin St. It’s open, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays while the construction is under way.

The foundation is close to raising the $6 million needed for this first phase of the work. As of last week, it was shy just $247,608. But the theater needs even more work to secure its future — another $6 million, the foundation estimates — so a second phase will be announced soon.

One spin through the theater makes clear why this campaign is a worthwhile cause. A first visit is breathtaking, as local patrons will recall and as first-time visitors to Tampa experience on a regular basis.

It is, quite simply, a work of architectural art, from the sky dome with the twinkling-light stars at the top down to the intricate tile work lining the walls of the basement restrooms. In between are gargoyles, a fantasy Italian villa, and the original Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ — spirited away, relocated years later, and reinstalled in the 1980s.

The theater was designed in the atmospheric style perfected by European-born American architect John Eberson. Some 100 of Eberson’s theaters were built, from Miami north to Oswego, N.Y., all throughout the Midwest, and as far west as San Antonio Texas.

Many have been demolished and some lay in ruins. The Tampa Theatre is one of three that survived to earn a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Small Business Saturday this week and Giving Tuesday on Nov. 28 might serve as a nudge toward a contribution from any individual or business who loves the theater, or who sees the potential it holds to feed economic development downtown.

Precious few examples remain of Tampa life during the 1920s. One this precious, protected so far by generations of forward-thinking citizens, warrants renewed support from the community today.