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Tampa Theatre Gets A Makeover - And New Unveiling

Dec 20, 2017

What has been called one of the most beautiful theaters in the world has been showing its age lately. So the Tampa Theatre was shut down for six weeks. The first phase of its facelift is done - but it wasn't without some challenges.

This is the place where the stars shine all day from its vaulted ceiling. Where gargoyles and fantastical sculptures glare at you from the sides of the stage. Where walking through the lobby transports you back to 1926.

But after 91 years, the old lady is showing her age. So the Tampa Theatre was closed in November. Since then, the sounds of hammers and drills have been the theater's soundtrack.

On Friday, Dec. 22,  she'll have an unveiling. There's new seats - those red velvet ones actually dated from the 1970's. A new concession stand replaces the disco-era version. And vibrant colors return to what had become dark, grimy and time-worn.

Theater CEO John Bell says what people will see when they walk through those art deco front doors might not be what they're used to.

"One of the things that was a revelation to us is that we've become so accustomed to the red seats and the red carpet and the red drapes that we sort of assumed that was what was here," Bell said. "But we discovered that it wasn't. And we discovered that the original architect said that he believed that using red in abundance was bad luck."

So out went the red - and what is taking its place required a little architectural archaeology.

"So when we did the forensic research, what we discovered was the color palette wasn't red - it was more earth tone," he said. "And very little red, a bit of yellow, some greens, but just a beautiful palette that we were able to discover by scraping away what his original intentions were. "

Bell is referring to architect John Eberson, who designed a garish explosion of gargoyles and flowers. It is capped with 99 bulbs  in the ceiling to resemble twinkling stars. A 900-pipe Mighty Wurlitzer organ rises from beneath the stage. It has consistently made it to the list of most beautiful theaters in the world.

Theater spokeswoman Jill Witecki said they were lucky enough to find a couple of original seats. They're a warm chocolate brown - not red. And while the theater's wiring, air conditioning and plumbing are being brought into the 21st century, that's not what moviegoers will notice.

"When you see the colors that have been returned to their original state out in the lobby, everything just pops," she said. "You walk in, and even its a building you walk into every day, you notice new things that you never saw before because they've never been highlighted before. They've just been a wash of muted colors." 

Restoring that historic splendor has fallen to people like Jed Ellis. He's with Evergreen Architectural Arts, a New York-based restoration firm. Ellis pored over old photos of the lobby atrium, where support beams were fashioned into fantastical creatures.

So just how did he figure out the color from an black-and-white photo? 

Jed Ellis holds up a black-and-white photo that holds clues to the past
Credit Steve Newborn/WUSF News

"We're able to remove the old layers of paint and uncover them and then say, oh, ok, there's a picture of a fleur-de-lis , it's sitting on a green background - even though it just looks dark," he said. "And then you start uncovering a whole bunch of them and you start to see the rhythm and pattern that was created. And there's always a pattern. Always a pattern."

Even though he does historic restoration all over the world, Ellis says coming back to the Tampa Theatre is more than a "labor of love."

"It's more of being able to do the right thing for the building," Ellis said. "As corny as it might sound, the building's can't talk. You know, if half these buildings could talk, they'd be screaming at us. (fake screams). So it's an honor, it's a pleasure -and also a headache to bring it back to the original."

All this isn't coming cheap. While the theater is owned by the city of Tampa, the $6 million project was funded by state and federal grants, and a lot of private donations.

Bell says it's important to get it right.

"The other thing that is important to me is this love affair that exists between people in this community and this building. People love this building," he said. "And that means a lot to us here and it sort of reinforces how important it is that we get this right. For the community."

So he says they're giving it the loving touch that hopefully will allow it to last another 91 years.

The Tampa Theatre will reopen Friday night with the local premiere of the movie "The Shape of Water."

Credit Steve Newborn/WUSF News