Tampa Theatre to return to original design following six-week renovation

TAMPA – Before the historic Tampa Theatre closed on Monday for six weeks to undergo $6 million in renovations, it hosted a special Sunday night screening - Back to the Future.

The 1985 film starring Michael J. Fox is about travelling back in time, which also is the theme of the restoration project underway at the 91-year-old theater, returning the lobby, seats, carpet and curtains to their look on opening day 1926.

“When you hear the word restoration, you think of history,” John Bell, the chief executive officer of the Tampa Theatre, at a restoration kickoff event on Monday. “This project and our focus is squarely on the future, the future of what this building can mean even more to downtown.”

When the theatre reopens in late-December, the velvet seats, carpet and main curtain – all in red, installed in 1976 – will be gone.

The new seats will be colored like a “warm, chocolate-hued leather” according to a theater news release, the carpets will be “boldly patterned” and the main curtain will feature narrow pinstripes.

The concessions stand installed in 1976 will be demolished and replaced with one that can better serve large crowds, Bell said.

Finally, the lobby’s signature night-sky ceiling and gargoyles will be refurbished with forensically matched paint and plaster.

The Tampa Theatre was designed by architect John Eberson, renowned in the early 1900s for the atmospheric style he introduced to nearly 100 movie palaces throughout the United States. Many of them now are gone.

“Can you imagine this place being demolished?” Tampa City Councilman Guido Maniscalco said at the kickoff. “I couldn’t.”

Money for the project was raised through grants and public donations in a campaign titled, “Cush Your Tush,” a nod to the most sweeping change – more comfortable seats that also are farther apart. The number of seats will shrink from 1,410 to 1,260.

“It’s something my mother has always said – ‘I love the Tampa Theatre but the seats, oh the seats,’ ” Maniscalco said. “I know she will be looking forward to coming to a lot more events and movies here.”

Other less obvious renovations include new windows and electrical upgrades.

A second round of renovations will include more infrastructure improvements plus a restoration of art work including the night-sky ceiling inside the theater. The second phase also will cost $6 million and will begin once funding is secured.

The renovation won’t stop the showing of the theater’s annual Holiday Classics movie series. A special 40-foot screen will be be set up outdoors at Curtis Hixon park on Ashley Drive.

Seven movies will be shown, for free, on select Friday and Saturday evenings Nov. 17 through Dec. 16 as part of the Tampa Downtown Partnership’s Winter Village event.

Meantime, for those feeling nostalgic, the theater’s old, red seats are available for purchase.

Larry Schiller of Schiller’s Architectural and Design Salvage has 30 four-seat sections for $500 each and eight five-seat sections for a $625 each. Call (813) 443-4641 for information.

“Many, many people have contacted us and asked about buying one of these awful 40-year-old seats,” theater spokesperson Jill Witecki said. “Apparently everyone has hated them for decades but now that we are getting rid of them, everybody wants one in their house.”

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