TAMPA ― Tampa Theatre was considered futuristic when it opened in 1926. The ceiling mimicked an evening sky with 99 glowing stars and a light machine that produced a moving cloud. The lobby and 1,400-seat theater were cooled with what newspapers referred to as “manmade air.”
“It was a newfangled invention known as air conditioning,” said Jill Witecki, the city-owned theater’s vice president and director of marketing.
Today, downtown’s Tampa Theatre remains an operational movie house and concert venue, but also doubles as a museum of sorts by maintaining its original decor, both inside and outside.
An upcoming three-year, $21 million renovation will preserve that historic look while ushering in a new era for Tampa Theatre, adding a second screen and a third-floor event space.
“It’s exciting and terrifying at the same time,” Witecki said. “Right now, we have one space where we do 700 events a year. By the time this is all done, we’re going to have three spaces.”
The city of Tampa’s Community Redevelopment Agency recently approved $14 million for the project. The rest will be raised through a fundraising effort billed as the Second Century Campaign.
“It’s a beautiful building, and people who are used to just coming here for films or shows but don’t look closely may wonder where in the world we are going to spend $21 million,” Witecki said, especially since $6 million was spent in 2017 to return much of the lobby and theater to the original 1926 look. “But wait until they see it when we’re done.”
The second screen is a “game changer,” said John Bell, president and CEO of the theater at 711 N Franklin St.
That new 43-seat theater will be located inside the neighboring 1,200-square-foot storefront that the city has owned for around a dozen years and was most recently a flower shop.
To build it, Tampa Theatre hired Boston Light & Sound, which constructed Martin Scorsese’s screening room.
“They’re the best in the world,” Bell said. “We wanted to make it a perfect cinema.”
Bell envisions the new theater, considered a “microcinema,” showing the same mix of classics, blockbusters and independent movies as the main theater while providing a screening option for local filmmakers who don’t need 1,400 seats.
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The main theater will be worked on, too.
The 2017 restoration effort did not include the famed ceiling that was originally designed by John Eberson, renowned in the early 1900s for introducing the atmospheric style to nearly 100 movie palaces.
Now, the sky will be repainted, the stars’ bulbs will be replaced with a fiber optic lighting system, and the cloud machine, which has not worked in around 15 years, will be fixed.
“The underlying architecture is still spectacular,” Bell said. “But I have to remind people that it’s dimly lit. Everything looks great in candlelight. But there are many areas that, when lit up, evidently need a lot of work.”
And, while most of the theater is ADA-accessible, the stage is not. Construction will include adding stage stairs that can collapse into a ramp with the push of a button.
“It’s something out of the Jetsons,” Bell said.
A new elevator will make the third floor ADA-accessible.
That 2,200-square-foot space is currently known as the “Tampa Theatre graveyard,” Witecki said, because it’s where they store the building’s historic items, like seats that are waiting to be restored. By 2026, the 100th anniversary of Tampa Theatre, the third story will become an event space.
The floor will need to be nearly totally gutted, including an old unique renovation.
At some point, the roof must have been leaking, so, “some enterprising stagehand came up with a solution,” Bell said.
Under the leak, the stagehand hung a bucket with a hole drilled into the bottom. They attached a hose that led to a second bucket on the floor. The contraption is still there even though the roof has not leaked in decades.
“Modern ingenuity at its best,” Bell said, laughing. “Maybe we should keep it.”
When asked about their favorite addition that the $21 million will bring to Tampa Theatre, Bell and Witecki jokingly agreed that it’s the addition of air conditioning in the basement dressing rooms by 2026.
Just as the Tampa Theatre did in 1926, Witecki said, “We’re bringing manmade air.”