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NOW PLAYING // A theater near you

The show begins before the curtain rises at the best movie venues around Tampa Bay.

Whether it's the glitz of a state-of-the-art multiplex, or the quaint nostalgia of a vintage landmark, the unique ambiance of this area's finest theaters can make the difference between merely seeing a movie and experiencing it.

A high-tech joyride such as Broken Arrow wouldn't be nearly as fun without a chest-thumping sound system amplifying each explosion, or flashy decor to get us in the proper amusement-park mood. Watching Bogart bid Bergman a Casablanca farewell deserves surroundings that are a cozy throwback to past glamor. Foreign and alternative films seem more special, viewed in a no-frills setting that makes us feel as dedicated being there as any starving artist.

There are movie theaters, and there are buildings that just happen to show movies. Find a proper venue for your tastes, and the box office becomes your toll booth to a boulevard of Hollywood dreams. Settle for anything less and you may as well stay home with your VCR running.

"Nothing can duplicate the experience of going to a show, nothing in this world," according to Mary Ann Grasso, executive director of the National Association of Theater Owners. "I watch videos and cable TV like everybody else, but there's nothing like a big screen and a comfortable seat and a curtain that goes up and down, and doors that close, enveloping the room in darkness.

"You see the film projected properly, with the proper sound system, with other people who are isolated from the world, except for that film experience. I don't care if it's Sense and Sensibility or Broken Arrow, that's the way it is supposed to be seen. When those images are larger than life, that's when you have maximum impact."

Selecting the top 5 theaters in the Tampa Bay area wasn't as difficult as it may seem. Most of the 52 locations listed in Weekend's movie times are holdovers from the 1970s, when a basic construction of multiple auditoriums under one roof was enough to amaze moviegoers. The consumer explosion of home video changed that thinking forever, forcing exhibitors to turn multiplexes into megaplexes, as comfy and complete as our own living rooms and, in some respects, our kitchens.

Three of these cutting-edge theaters opened around Tampa Bay within the past year: Cobb's Hollywood 18 in Port Richey, Muvico's Palm Harbor 10, and Florida's largest megaplex, American Multi Cinema's Regency 20 in Brandon.

In comparison, AMC's 24-screen theater in Dallas is acknowledged by Grasso as the largest in the United States.

"Not all communities can support theaters the size of these megaplexes," said Grasso, noticeably impressed with the fact that three of them are here.

Each contains eye-catching decor and the next generation of sight, sound and seating. Other multiplexes boast some of the same bells and whistles _ AMC's Old Hyde Park 7 and Crossroads 8, or Carmike's Hillsborough 8 West, for example _ but those are the results of touch-up efforts, rather than a completely new experience.

Most of the other chain-operated multiplexes can be dismissed as "shoe boxes with seats." They are the cramped leftovers from the boom-without-foresight era whose appeal now is their proximity, or inexpensive ticket prices for films several weeks past their initial popularity.

Finally, there are the antiques; reminders of years when one projector was enough to satisfy an entire town, and the promise of air conditioning was heralded on the marquee in letters larger than the movie title itself. Some have been split into two auditoriums, in a desperate attempt to compete in the megaplex age, like the Pasco in Dade City or Home Theater in Zephyrhills.

Two of these memory-nudging theaters have established a special niche in the modern movie world. Both earned a place among the top 5 theaters in Tampa Bay; one for what's on the screen, and the other for what surrounds it.

Except for an occasional coat of paint and equipment maintenance, Beach Theater in St. Pete Beach looks the same as it did when the first true snowbirds began migrating to the Suncoast in the 1950s. What makes it special is the daring selection of films that owner Shell Wimpton brings to town. Beach Theater usually is the only Pinellas County outlet for small films from exotic countries, or American films without the benefit of major studio support.

Joining hands in this artistic effort across the bay is Tampa Theatre, unquestionably the most beautiful place to view films in this area. The film selection leans toward bizarre imports from around the world, plus fringe films that gain notice from critics in spite of the Hollywood system. The screen could remain blank, though, and visitors would still be enraptured by the theater's eclectic architecture and old-style pipe organ music that precedes each show.

None of these theaters can expect to be everything to every moviegoer. But wouldn't it be thrilling if anyone could combine their historic grandeur, technological supremacy and brave film scheduling into one package?

If you figure out how to do it, there's a nice piece of land near the bay in St. Petersburg that doesn't have any plans for the moment.