Tampa Theatre

LOCATION: 711 North Franklin Street, Tampa, FL 33602

CLIENT: City of Tampa

ARCHITECT: John Eberson

BUILT: 1926

SIZE: 1,238 seats


PHOTO CREDITS: Jennifer Kielich, Flickr

WEBSITE: www.tampatheatre.org

The quintessence of grand movie palace architecture, the Tampa Theatre was chosen as one of “America’s 21 Wonders” and “One of the Top Ten Iconic Showplaces in the World.”  A beloved community treasure since 1926, the Theatre was rescued from demolition in 1978 and today hosts over 700 events annually including first run and classic films, concerts by touring artists, community events, summer camps, and school field trips.

Built in 1926 as one of America’s most elaborate “movie palaces”, the Tampa Theatre today is a fiercely protected and generously supported landmark. Designed by famed theatre architect John Eberson, the Tampa Theatre is a superior example of the “atmospheric” style of theatre design. Inside the Tampa, audiences are transported to a lavish, romantic Mediterranean courtyard replete with old-world statuary, flowers, and gargoyles. Over it all is a nighttime sky with twinkling stars and floating clouds.

Like other new movie palaces around the country, the Tampa Theatre was enormously popular. For the first time in history, the common person had access to opulence on a scale never before imagined. For 25 cents, they could escape into a fantasy land for two hours, see first-class entertainment, and be treated like royalty by uniformed platoons of ushers and attendants. In the late 1920s, 90 million Americans went to see a film weekly.

For several decades, the Tampa remained a jewel and the centerpiece of Tampa’s cultural landscape. People grew up, stole their first kisses in the balcony, followed the weekly newsreels, and celebrated life week after week by coming back to the Tampa.

But by the 1960-s and 70-s, times had changed. America’s flight to suburbs was having a damaging effect on downtown business districts across the country. Hardest hit were the downtown movie palaces which dotted America’s urban landscapes. Audiences dwindled and costs rose. Many of our nation’s finest movie palaces were quickly demolished before anyone noticed because the land beneath them became more valuable than the theatre operation.

In 1973, the Tampa Theatre faced the same fate. But in Tampa, citizens rallied. Committees were formed. City leaders became involved, and soon a deal was reached to have the City rescue the Tampa by assuming its leases. The Arts Council of Hillsborough County agreed to program and manage the Tampa with films, concerts, and special events. By the time the Theatre reopened in early 1978, the Tampa had become something of a national model on how to save an endangered theatre.

Today, Tampa Theatre is managed by the not-for-profit Tampa Theatre Foundation and is a remarkable success story.  The Theatre presents and hosts over 600 events a year including a full schedule of first-run and classic films, concerts, special events, corporate events, tours, and educational programs. The theatre is one of the most heavily utilized venues of its kind in the United States.

Since its rescue in 1978, the Tampa Theatre has welcomed over 5 million guests, including over 1 million school children for school field trips and summer camps, in the context of one of Tampa ‘s largest historic preservation projects.

Community support and contributions are critical to the Theatre’s continued success and viability. In spite of its successes, the Theatre only manages about 60% of its annual operating budget through earned income. Contributions to the Tampa Theatre Foundation from individuals, companies, and foundations help to make up the difference and keep the Theatre accessible and affordable for everyone.

Tampa Theatre was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, is a Tampa City Landmark, and is a member of the League of Historic American Theatres.


About the Architect 

John Eberson was born in Vienna, Austria, on January 2, 1875.  As a young man, he studied in Vienna, Austria, and in Dresden, Germany, earning two degrees, one in architecture and the other in chemical engineering.  In 1903, he moved to the United States.  A few years later, as a young architect, he began designing small-town opera houses, achieving such success that he became known as “Opera House John.”  However, simply designing a place for entertainment was not enough for Eberson.  He felt there was a need for creating an environment of illusion for Americans to distract them from life’s problems and provide them with an atmosphere of rest and beauty.  

John Eberson personally designed each theatre and selected the furnishings.  Often he traveled to Italy, Spain, France, or to cities in the United States, like New Orleans, Louisiana, to purchase statues, paintings, spears and swords, vases, furniture, and other artistic ornaments and furnishings.  As the number of theatres he designed and decorated grew, Eberson founded Michaelangelo Studios of Chicago, Illinois, and engaged a husband and wife team of artists, Mr. and Mrs. William Hartman, to assist him in his work.  His young son, Drew Eberson, licensed in 1927 as an architect, also aided his father.

John Eberson had many imitators, but “none had quite the same air of midsummer’s night in dreamland as Eberson’s originals.”  He was an archeologist, weatherman, and landscape gardener rolled into one, and the combination made wonderful box office.

In March of 1954, in his seventy-ninth year, John Eberson died with the distinction of having designed about five hundred theatres. 


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