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THEATER DIGITAL DEBUT DAZZLES

Tampa Theatre, a fixture of local elegance and art for more than 86 years, never looked or sounded lovelier than Tuesday night.

The grande dame of Tampa Bay entertainment celebrated her long-awaited - and fiscally imperative - digital makeover, with more than 600 friends and lovers attending, cheering her into the 21st century of movie exhibition.

The old broad certainly wears her new accoutrements well.

Tampa Theatre's president and CEO John Bell - smiling like a proud new father flush with cigars - kicked off the evening with a promise from the venue's opening night playbill, dated Oct. 15, 1926:

"The pictures to be shown at the Tampa will be the finest obtainable, and they will be flashed upon the screen using the latest type of high intensity projectors under the personal supervision of recognized engineers."

Bell added: "Thanks to our community, thanks to our donors, thanks to everyone's support, we're able to say tonight that that statement is still true."

The newly installed, $150,000 digital projection and audio system is necessary since Hollywood is rapidly phasing out film as a functional format. Eventually prints of new releases won't be celluloid, but the codes and commands of digital technology. Tampa Theatre pays its bills by showing first-run releases, enabling the venue to continue running classics like Casablanca still available on film.

For any theater's future, digital projection is a use-it-or-lose-it proposition.

So, it was with a sense of rebirth that 216 donors (including the Tampa Bay Times), volunteers and movie buffs gathered Tuesday evening.

What their senses experienced was nothing Tampa Theatre has offered before . The movie shown was Samsara, a wordless documentary stream of consciousness, meditative music and images from around the world.

Images on the screen were crisply detailed and vibrantly colored, without the faint flutter or scratches of film projection. Even better was the audio system, with speakers stationed behind the screen, laser-aimed at seating areas with precision.

Remember how a film's soundtrack would bounce off Tampa Theatre's rococo walls, often creating a muffle of tiny echo? No more. Digital audio allowed Samsara's bass notes to rumble with chest-thumping authority, and high notes to lightly dance upon eardrums. The sound of Tampa Theatre is what customers will remember post-digitally.

Before the show, many visitors climbed four flights of stairs to the theater's booth to see the digital projector flanked by its two functioning film ancestors. They listened as projectionist Gary Dowling explained the new process and his nostalgia for splicing and threading film prints.

"I kind of miss some of the old stuff because I've grown up with 35(mm film)," Dowling said. "But this new technology is just amazing. There's no breakdown of the quality of the picture. With film you're physically running through a projector, so over time scratches happen, the color fades, the soundtrack deteriorates a little bit.

"But after you run it for a while, film starts to wear down and (digital) stays right there, the quality stays right there."

As will this marvelously ornate movie palace now, and for years to come.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365.

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