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A Tampa woman spent 10 years researching historic theaters. She needs your memories.

At least 61 movie houses operated in Tampa over the years. The information will be compiled in a book and a documentary.
Ybor City's Ritz Theatre is among the 61 historic Tampa movie theaters Kelly Hickman has documented the history of. Only downtown's Tampa Theatre is still used for its original purpose. The others have been razed or repurposed.
Ybor City's Ritz Theatre is among the 61 historic Tampa movie theaters Kelly Hickman has documented the history of. Only downtown's Tampa Theatre is still used for its original purpose. The others have been razed or repurposed. [ Courtesy of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System ]
Published May 11, 2020
Updated May 11, 2020

TAMPA ― Kelly Hickman has the facts.

Now, she needs your memories.

For a decade, Hickman has been researching the stories of Tampa’s historic single-screen movie theaters.

Today, downtown’s Tampa Theatre is the last of its kind.

But Hickman has determined that at least 61 operated in Tampa over the years.

She has documented opening dates, size, capacity and what types of movies were screened.

That information will be part of a book and documentary one day.

But first, the 47-year-old Tampa filmmaker needs help from the public.

“We need personal stories,” Hickman said. “I know there are still people in the community who visited these theaters or had parents or grandparents who did and have stories."

She wants those people to email her at HistoricTheatresInTampa@gmail.com.

The Tampa Theatre went dark due to coronavirus in March. Since the closure, the historic downtown venue and movie house has illuminated its marquee, shown here on April 21, with messages to show gratitude to essential workers and those on the front lines of coronavirus.
The Tampa Theatre went dark due to coronavirus in March. Since the closure, the historic downtown venue and movie house has illuminated its marquee, shown here on April 21, with messages to show gratitude to essential workers and those on the front lines of coronavirus. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Hickman’s own memories launched this endeavor.

She was 9 when she took her first field trip to the Tampa Theatre and fell in love with its charm, architecture and history.

“We had movie theaters in Brandon where I grew up, but nothing like that,” Hickman said. “Nothing in Brandon stuck in my head like that feeling when you go to Tampa Theatre.”

Years later, while looking for old pictures of that theater, she discovered the Burgert Brothers Photographic Collection of nearly 20,000 photos detailing the history of the Tampa Bay area.

“I found all these photos of these other old theaters that I had never heard of,” Hickman said.

She searched for information online and in libraries, but found little.

“So, 10 years ago, I decided to start putting together a list,” Hickman said. “That’s how this all began."

Hickman looked to the League of Historic American Theatres to define what constitutes a “historic theatre.”

The Maryland-based nonprofit that seeks to preserve the historic theaters remaining nationwide defines them as those that opened with a single screen more than 50 years ago and were used primarily for motion pictures.

The oldest Tampa movie house that Hickman and her three research volunteers have discovered is the Nickelodeon. It opened in November 1906 at 315 Franklin St. and "was probably a storefront with folding chairs and a projector,” Hickman said.

Next came the Electric Theatre at 904 Franklin St. in June 1907.

The Sans Souci at 116 Lafayette St. came in July of that year.

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Hickman said that was Tampa’s first “premiere movie theater."

“The place is most attractively arranged with beautiful decorations,” reads an Oct. 25, 1907, Tampa Tribune article. “But a matter of greater importance to the public is the fact that it has the most comfortable seats in the city.”

Meaning “without worry,” Hickman said, there was a contest to name the Sans Souci. “The winner received $10 and a season ticket.” It later moved to 1315 E Seventh Ave. in Ybor City.

The Sans Souci Theatre was in Ybor City.
The Sans Souci Theatre was in Ybor City. [ Courtesy of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System ]

The Tampa Theatre that stands in downtown today is the second to bear that name.

The Greeson Theatre opened as a playhouse on June 9, 1910, and was located at 309 Tampa St., according to Hickman. Four years later, the Greeson changed its name to “Tampa Theatre" and showed motion pictures. That building was converted into a parking garage in 1917.

The current Tampa Theatre opened in 1926 and was designed by architect John Eberson, renowned in the early 1900s for the atmospheric style he introduced to movie palaces throughout the United States.

“That one will always be my favorite,” Hickman said. “It’s a jewel from an architectural standpoint.”

It is Tampa’s only historic movie theater to survive time, redevelopment and the popularity of the multiplex.

The interior view of ceiling, stage and seating from balcony in Tampa Theatre in 1930.
The interior view of ceiling, stage and seating from balcony in Tampa Theatre in 1930. [ Courtesy of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System ]

Of the 61 single-screen historic Tampa theaters that Hickman has documented, 22 were in downtown, 14 were in Ybor City and nine were in West Tampa, with the rest sprinkled throughout other parts of the city.

Most single-screen theaters either closed or converted to multiple screens by the 1960s, Hickman said.

Some of the original buildings still stand and have been repurposed.

Ybor’s Ritz Theatre at 1503 E Seventh Ave. is an event space, for instance.

Hickman has a Facebook page for Historic Theatres in Tampa, but her research can be found at historictheatresintampa.blogspot.com.

“A blog,” Hickman said with a laugh. “That’s how long ago I started this.”

Now, she is ready to finish it.

“We need stories, lots of stories,” Hickman said. “We want these theaters to come alive through storytelling. If you know someone who lived in Tampa and experienced these theaters, we want to hear from them."