Ghost stories from the historic Tampa Theatre

The old movie house is haunted, according to those who work there.
Learn about Tampa Theatre's haunted past on ghost tours. Times (2017)
Learn about Tampa Theatre's haunted past on ghost tours. Times (2017) [ CHARLIE KAIJO | Times ]
Published Oct. 26, 2021

Each year, Tampa Theatre holds A Nightmare on Franklin Street. The annual Halloween horror movie festival also includes ghost tours. Marketing director Jill Witecki shared a few of the eerie stories told on those tours.

The first is about “a tragic passing” believed to have occurred on the property before the theater was built, she said. “Back in the days when Franklin Street was a dirt road, a young woman was struck by a carriage and killed near the intersection of what is now Polk Street.”

One of Tampa Theatre’s longtime volunteers says she has seen the figure of a woman in a long, white gown walking the mezzanine hallway upstairs, Witecki said. Psychics investigating the building confirm that they, too, have felt the presence on the second floor of a female figure whose body underwent significant impact and trauma, and who is unsure of what this place is.

Another spooky encounter happened in early October 2019, when the theater’s CEO and leadership team were in the building early in the morning to give a tour for some new board members.

“I was moving ahead of the tour group making sure doors were open and lights were on,” Witecki said. “As I came through the basement, Dressing Room 1 was full of stuff from the film festival going on in the building, so I moved on to Dressing Room No. 2. The door was closed, but unlocked. As I pushed the door open, the chair and box fan that normally sit next to the door inside the dressing room were scooted over behind the door and had to be shoved out of the way.”

There is only one door into the dressing room and it opens inward, she said, so it would be “nearly impossible” for someone exiting the room to close the door and then move the chair and fan over behind it. A few days later, during one of the theater’s paranormal events, an investigator and three guests were in Dressing Room No. 2 conducting an electronic voice phenomena session.

“The bathroom door in the dressing room slammed shut,” she said.

But Tampa Theatre’s most dramatic spot for paranormal activity, Witecki said, is the projection booth. She tells the story of Foster Finley, nicknamed “Fink” by his friends, who worked as the projectionist for 35 years, from 1930 to 1965.

A short, quiet man with glasses, he loved his job and this theater so much that he would often arrive to work by 8 a.m., even though the day’s films didn’t start until after noon, she said. In those morning hours, Fink would climb the steep stairs to the booth while drinking a cup of coffee and smoking a cigarette. There, he would read the daily paper, shave in the adjoining bathroom and dress for work in his three-piece suit.

Fink developed cancer, Witecki said, but continued to work at his beloved theater until one day he collapsed in the booth. His co-projectionist, Bill Hunt, took him home, where he died several weeks later. Soon after his passing, strange things started happening in and around the projection booth.

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“Bill remembers entering the booth and closing the door — or trying to — only to discover the door pulling back, as though someone was trying to come in behind him,” Witecki said. “But when he pushed the door back open, no one was on the stairs. Four different projectionists over the past 50 years have heard the door to the generator room opening and closing by itself, as though someone were coming and going.”

She added: “During a screening of a 35mm film, the most important time is the change-over from one projector to the other. During those critical moments when the projectionist can’t take his eyes from the screen, several of them have reported sensing a figure behind them or feeling someone tapping them on the shoulder.”

In 1981, theater operations foreman Angel Altuzarra was looking for the folded buck knife he always carried on his belt. He’d lost it several days before, and had turned the theater inside-out looking for it, Witecki said.

“He remembered a television show he’d seen that claimed if you asked a ghost to return something you’d lost, the item would come back to you,” she said. “He stood at the mezzanine rail overlooking the stage and called out ‘Ghost of the Theatre, please return my knife!’ He waited, but nothing happened. He tried again: ‘Fink Finley! Ghost of the Theatre! Please return my knife!’ There was no reply, and he turned to head back down the steps behind him. There, propped against the wall, he saw a glint of steel. It was his knife, resting in a spot he’d searched several times before.”

To learn more about Tampa Theatre’s haunted history, Ghosts of Tampa Theatre Tours are available various dates and times through Oct. 31. The 75-minute tours cost $15. Tampa Theatre is at 711 N Franklin St. 813-274-8286.