Built in 1926, Tampa Theatre is one of America’s most elaborate movie palaces. Preserved for generations, the historical landmark is one of Tampa Bay’s best-kept gems, retrofitted with numerous technical upgrades from recorded sound in 1929 to digital projection in 2014. The single screen, 1,200-seat theatre, presents around 550 film screenings during normal years. The theatre also shows specialty films, and hosts live concerts and community events.
In October of 2019, the theatre announced new plans to create a second theater, bringing the microcinema movement to Tampa with hopes to build the finest screening room in the Southeast. The new theatre, which is estimated to cost around $1.5 million, will take over the space that now houses the Nature Shop. That space is under the theatre’s historic marquee and is big enough to place 40-50 seats.
Construction plans, halted temporarily by the pandemic, are expected to get underway by the end of 2021. Funding is coming in from private donations as well as from the hopeful expectation of restoration of an original grant of $650,000 from the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners’ Capital Asset Preservation (CAP) Program. The grant has been taken away as COVID affected everything around us, but Theatre board members and executive leadership are hopeful that as the county works out its budget for the next year, that grant will be restored.
, a local architectural firm and design studio, and Boston Light & Sound
are working on the design, facing the challenge that with Tampa Theatre being such a spectacular venue, it won’t be possible to simply recreate it on a smaller scale.
“All we’ve told the design team is that this needs to have the DNA of Tampa Theatre
, so think of it as Tampa Theatre’s granddaughter,” says Tampa Theatre President and CEO John Bell. “The granddaughter is going to wear different clothes and do her hair differently than the grandmother, but there needs to be a family resemblance. … The goal is to wow people differently.”
The idea for this project has been kicked around for about 10 years.
“We know what we’ve got, we know it’s important, we know it’s significant and so we’re dedicated to making sure we protect it and preserve it properly,” Bell says. “That’s what drives everything, the fact that Tampa is lucky to have this jewel in downtown.”
Back in the 1970s, the downtown area was on a steep decline, businesses were closing, and it wasn’t the best place to be after dark. The city looked at the Tampa Theatre, which was in danger of distress, as a way to send a signal to the business community, knowing if they could get it going residents would see that they weren’t giving up on downtown.
“Tampa Theatre is sort of where the city planted the flag and said, ‘We’re going to figure this out.’ I think they knew that it could be an economic driver,” Bell says.
John Eberson, architect of Tampa Theatre, was one of the most sought-after architects for theaters at the time it was built, and this location was his favorite.
“It’s a special building, not just for Tampa, and all the memories people had growing up here, but because of its architecture. It’s also an important national landmark,” Bell says. Now as they take on the creation of this second theatre, it changes the business model, expands what they can do, opens the historic hall for more use, and will increase income. From a business standpoint, it’s important for their relations with film distributors to be able to have this second space.
Bell compares the need for the additional smaller venue to a retail store with only one shelf. By adding a second shelf, they’ll have more space to offer more.
“I’m optimistic and can’t wait to get this second cinema going so we can become even more dangerous,” Bell says. “Part of it will be trial and error, but I know that just overall, as a general standpoint, having that second space to work with is going to be liberating for us.”