The Tampa Theatre – Keeping a Piece of History Alive

By Karen McBride
Published in LOLANews
January 2013

The 1920’s was a time when cars had cool names like the Ajax Nash, Flint and Rickenbacker. Styles were changing. Dresses became a little shorter and more fun with lighter, pastel shades. Bobbed hairstyles and chic hats completed the look. Men suits were less tailored with baggy pants and oxford saddle shoes. This new, fun-loving era produced a population of movie goers. Tampa was a growing community and needed a place for people to go when they felt like putting on the Ritz and getting dolled up.

IMG_4520In 1926, the place for both young and old, the Tampa Theatre, was built. John Eberson, a well-known theatre architect, envisioned an opulent Mediterranean style courtyard. Visitors could sit on red velvet seats in anticipation of the night to come. The pipes would bellow as the Wurlitzer organ rose from below the stage. Movie goers were entertained from the moment they walked through the door.

On October 15, 1926, movie goers anxiously waited in line to be one of the first to enter to the new building. The silent film shown at the Tampa Theatre on Opening Night was “The Ace of Cads”, starring Adolphe Menjou, the well-dressed lead actor with a waxed black moustache. His co-star was Alice Joyce. The cost was a mere 10 cents to be transported to another time and place.

As you enter the building, there is such a sense of elegance. Flowers and gargoyles surround you, Colorful tile covers IMG_4527the floors and twinkling stars blanket the ceiling. The earlier movie goers must have felt like royalty as they were escorted by the uniformed ushers. If people had to leave before the movie ended, the ushers would communicate with other ushers by using the brass intercom to summon the next group. The group would then stay through the beginning of the movie to the point where they entered. It was a continuous revolving door.

Over the next several decades, numerous popular movies premiered including “42nd Street” (1933) with Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell and Ginger Rogers; Shirley Temple’s “The Littlest Rebel” (1936); “Holiday Inn” (1942) with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, Jerry Lewis in “Rock-a-Bye Baby” (1958) and “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1981) with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. More recently, the theatre was the Tampa premiere for both “The King’s Speech” (2010) and “The Artist” (2011), and opened the Tampa exclusive for “Anna Karenina” this past November.

In addition to movies, the theatre has hosted a variety of entertainment. Annie Lennox, Harry Connick, Jr. Ray Charles, and Joan Baez are some of the performers to grace the stage. Political leaders (George Bush, Bob Dole, Jessie Jackson) and comedians (Roseanne Barr, Sinbad, Carrot Top) have all drawn crowds to the Tampa Theatre.
IMG_4525A long time crowd pleaser is the Wurlitzer, and the talented organist known as “the Queen of the Soaps”. Rosa Rio provided accompaniments for soap operas prior to entertaining the people of Tampa. After studying piano at Oberlin College and organ at the Eastman School of Music, she began a career as a silent movie accompanist. After “talkies” began, her career turned to radio dramas, including “The Shadow” with Orson Welles. In addition to numerous soap operas, she played piano for Mary Martin while auditioning in Cole Porter’s apartment in the Waldorf Astoria.

Her love of music and the Tampa Theatre was evident in the fact that she continued to play the Mighty Wurlitzer, and at the age of 105 years old, provided accompaniment to Buster Keaton’s silent film “One Wurlitzer, and at the age of 105 years old, provided accompaniment to Buster Keaton’s silent film “One Week”. Rosa Rio passed away at the age of 107, but her music will live on. For a sample of her talent, watch this video from 2005, She was 102 at the time.

The Tampa Theatre was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, is a Tampa City Landmark, and is a member of the League of Historic American Theatres. Managed by the non-profit Tampa Theatre Foundation, it is used for a variety of events including weddings, business meetings, classic movies, first run films, film festivals, concerts, field trips, summer camp programs, tours and fundraising galas.

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