What makes the Tampa Theatre worth a 550 mile road trip?
The Tampa Theatre is one of the best places to see a film in the United States. I’ve told everyone that since I took a road trip across Florida to see the tinted version of Lon Chaney’s Phantom of The Opera (1925) about 10 years ago. The MPAA, you know the group that rates movies, just issued a list of the 10 best movie theaters in the world. My opinion was validated when the MPAA named the Tampa Theatre the 3rd Best theater in the world. THE WORLD. Can someone say road trip.
So why is this movie palace so special?
Simple- the Tampa Theatre is a fully restored 1926 movie palace. It was built when going to the movies was all there was.
Tampa Theatre was designed by John Eberson. Eberson is a giant among classic movie palace architects. He designed many landmark movie theaters including the Olympia in Miami, and the State Theater in Michigan. The State Theater was just rated number one in the world.
When you sit in the Tampa Theatre, you get the feeling you are sitting under the stars in a Mediterranean courtyard.
There are flower baskets, ornate designs and even gargoyles to make it a little spooky. The ceiling painted blue, with small twinkling lights, gives the illusion you’re sitting outside as the painted clouds go by.
The Tampa theatre also features a huge Wurlitzer pipe organ. A short performance is a regular feature at the theater during the classic film series. The organ rises from the floor and you are treated to a special treat. For a moment it is 1926. The theater reverberates deep and so will you when certain notes are played. The organ also features the 1926 version of then state of the art special effects sampling. The organ can produce ohouga horns, sleigh bells, and more.
Thankfully this classic survived when many other similar palaces met the fate of the wrecking ball.
They offer tours, and it has been investigated by ghost hunters.
A former projectionist apparently doesn’t know his shift is over. Overnight ghost hunting tours have also kept the theater’s profile up.
When someone would ask what I was doing this weekend, I’d say, going to Tampa for a movie. I always get the look. It was quickly followed by, don’t they have movies by you. Movies yes but not these films and not in the setting that many of them were seen first run.
I’ve made road trips for: It Came From Outer Space, in original 2 strip 3d, The Birds by Alfred Hitchcock, anything by Fred and Ginger, King Kong, Creature from the Black Lagoon in 3d, Wizard of Oz, Touch of Evil, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, anything by Buster Keaton, a Three Stooges marathon and many more.
Silent films also are a mainstay, the amazing organ is one reason, the other was Rosa Rio. Until her death in 2010 at the age of 106, Rosa Rio was the last remaining original silent movie organist. I am honored that my kids and I got to meet and see this legend perform. She is direct connection to one of my favorite filmmakers, Orson Welles. Rosa Rio played the organ at NBC for Welles’s iconic radio series The Shadow.
The Tampa Theatre also hosted one of, if not the the best experience I ever had at a movie.
The film was The Thief of Baghdad (1925) with Douglass Fairbanks. From the opening credits that meshed perfectly with the Moorish surroundings, the entire experience was the perfect storm. The setting, the amazing effects of a film almost 90 years old, and Rosa playing live from that pipe organ, just perfect. She would do as she always did, she watched the film and played what she felt. As coins were being counted in one scene she played, “We’re in the money”. She was so right on it. She didn’t look a day over 80.
The Tampa Theatre was named one of the 21 wonders in the country in the last issue of Life Magazine. It is an amazing place to take a tour and even better if you can see a film there. They do show first run as well as classics, and have concerts there.
The classic theater in Tampa, I couldn’t think of a better road trip destination.