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After 87 Years, Tampa Theatre Goes Digital

Walking into the Tampa Theatre is like stepping back in time to a 1920s movie palace. But there's one feature about the downtown Tampa gem that will no longer be ancient: the picture and sound quality. WUSF's Dalia Colon stopped by Tampa Theatre on the night of its digital debut.

On a dreary Tuesday evening, David Camacho stood in line outside the Tampa Theatre with his son, Alex, and Alex's best friend, Michael Liang, both 9.

They were waiting for a screening of the art film Samsara, which the Tampa Theatre showed for free in honor of its digital debut. From here on out, the 1926 movie house will screen all films in digital picture and sound, with the exception of films only available in the old format.

"I'm from Tampa, and I've been coming here since I was their age," said Camacho, 41.

Camacho remembers seeing Attack of the Killer Tomatoes at Tampa Theatre when he was a boy. But his visits to the historic movie palace weren't always perfect.

"It was very frustrating, because when there was dialog, you couldn't really hear what they were saying," Camacho said. "I saw The Piano here back in the '90s, and I really didn't like the film, 'cause I just felt frustrated. Then I saw it on DVD later, and I liked it, 'cause I could actually understand what they were saying. So that was kind of the trade-off. You'd come here, and you were surrounded by a beautiful theater, but you couldn't really hear what they were saying sometimes, and that was really hard."

Now, Camacho says, "It's a really top-notch system they've installed here."

That top-notch sound and projection system doesn't come cheap. The switch to digital cost Tampa Theatre $150,000, even though the building gets taxpayer support. So far the theater has raised $90,000 in private donations.

"There's no downside to longevity. That goes for theaters and people."

Tampa Bay Times movie critic Steve Persall says the investment was worth every penny.

"This is the kind of thing where Tampa Theatre had to do this or it's not going to survive. And there's no way you want to let a treasure like this, a community treasure -- really a national treasure -- fall by the wayside," Persall said. "With film going out of style, digital is the way that everybody has to do in the future. If you don't do that, you're going to be out of business."

With all new releases going digital in 2014, Persall said now was the right time for Tampa Theatre to take the leap.

"There's no downside to longevity. That goes for theaters and people," Persall said with a laugh. "The longer you can stay alive, the better off you are, and Tampa Theatre has just gotten a new lease on life with this equipment coming in here."

Perhaps no one's happier about the new equipment than Gary Dowling. He's one of three projectionists at Tampa Theatre who no longer have to lug heavy 35-millimeter reels of film up the projection booth. Each reel weighs close to 10 pounds. Gone With the Wind weighed about 120 pounds.

"It's about 75 steps from the lobby to the projection booth," Dowling said from his perch high above the theater. "Carrying the digital movies up, compared to the 35s, is a lot easier."

We couldn't resist asking Dowling what Fink thinks about the move to digital. Foster "Fink" Finley was Tampa Theatre's longtime projectionsist. One day in 1965, Fink collapsed in the projection booth. He died two months later, and supposedly haunts the booth to this day.

"He hasn't told me yet," Dowling said with a laugh. "He hasn't spooked me up here, so I guess he's okay with it so far. He's still evaluating it."

Fink may still be on the fence, but Tuesday's audience seemed to be digging the new digital system. After the screening of Samsara, we checked back in with David Camacho.

"It was fantastic," Camacho said. "It was the absolute right choice of a movie because of the bright colors. You saw images from around the world and people in brightly colored clothes. ... Very nice."

The staff of Tampa Theatre hopes bright colors mean a bright future.

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