When the iconic Tampa Theatre opened in downtown Tampa in 1926, it was hailed by The Tampa Daily Times as perhaps the finest achievement of its kind, south of the Mason-Dixon line.
John Eberson, who designed the movie palace, was known throughout America, for his atmospheric theaters.
Besides laying claim to being Tampa’s first air-conditioned building, the theater, at 711 N. Franklin St., boasted a Mighty Wurlitzer, which, at that time, had 1,400 pipes.
Flash forward to the present — when patrons arriving to the theater often are treated to a pre-show provided by one of the volunteer organists.
“People love it. They absolutely love it,” said Jill Witecki, the theater’s director of marketing and community relations.
“There is something about seeing that organ rise up out of the floor — and to know that 93 years ago, when we opened, that’s what you were hearing,” she said. “It’s magical.”
Like all movie venues across Florida, Tampa Theatre was forced to go dark because of concerns about the potential spread of the deadly coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19).
So, while its doors are closed, theater staff have turned to virtual offerings to continue providing ways to connect with patrons.
One such event is set for May 22 at 7 at p.m., when the nationally acclaimed organist Steven Ball will accompany the 1926 silent comedy film, “The General,” starring Buster Keaton.
Ball will play his original score to an empty theater auditorium, while the event is livestreamed on the Tampa Theatre Facebook Page.
Ball isn’t the only highly recognized organist to grace the stage at the historic theater.
Rosa Rio, one of the few female organists to play during the silent film era, also has accompanied films there.
Trained in classical music at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, Rio accompanied screenings at venues such as Loew’s Burnside Theatre in New York and Saenger Theatre in New Orleans, according to a story by Sherri Ackerman, published on Aug. 26, 1998 in The Tampa Tribune.
Rio survived the emergence of “talkies,” played live backup to national television soap operas and went on to teach some of the finest musicians in the country, according to Ackerman’s account.
Witecki recalled Rio’s performances at Tampa Theatre.
“Rosa didn’t come to us until much, much later in her life,” Witecki said, noting Rio had retired to Sun City Center and came to the theater to attend a friend’s concert.
“When she saw this place and saw this organ, and saw they were willing to bring in — you know — volunteer organists, she was on board,” Witecki said.
“She played for us for, I think, seven or eight years. She played up until a few months before she died — and, she died at 107,” Witecki said.
The organ feels right at home here
The Tampa Theatre is the perfect place for an instrument like the Mighty Wurlitzer, Witecki said.
“The architects never conceived of amplified sound coming out of speakers when they built this building. It was built for unamplified music. It was built for a 21-piece orchestra or a pipe organ. That’s why the music in here sounds so incredible,” she said.
When the movie palace opened, it featured silent films.
“It was live musicians sitting up there,” Witecki said.
“It wouldn’t be uncommon that the full orchestra would play the weekend shows, the big Friday night shows. But, on a weekday, if you didn’t want to pay 21 musicians to be here, you could bring in one organist instead,” she said.
“With an organ, it’s not just the organ that’s important. You’re also playing the building,” said Dave Cucuzza, a volunteer organist for the theater.
“The building picks up the sound and amplifies it,” he said.
Besides playing traditional rich organ tones, Tampa Theatre’s organ can produce all sorts of special effects, including a train whistle, a horn, a siren and others.
It can produce bright sounds, low sounds, soft sounds and loud sounds, Cucuzza said.
It can set a mood, create an atmosphere.
Cucuzza gets a thrill out of sharing his love for organ music.
“I want people to be able to hear that sound because what they’re hearing is the same exact thing that people heard in 1926, during the silent movie era,” the organist said.
And, while the sounds of the organ can transport people back in time, there was a time when the organ at Tampa Theatre fell silent.
After the talkies came along, the organ fell into disuse and was sold to Bayshore Baptist Church, where it remained for decades.
It was returned to Tampa Theatre in the 1980s, with the help of the Central Florida Theatre Organ Society. Members of that society help to maintain the organ and some of them volunteer to play for film screenings and events.
Witecki said the theater welcomes additional volunteer organists, but noted a vetting process is required.
The more volunteers the theater has, the more it can share a form of music not commonly heard today, she said.
The theater tries to offer organ music as often as it can before screenings.
However, Witecki noted: “We are at the mercy of our organists’ schedules, whether or not they are able to make it.”
During the holidays, for instance, there often are sing-alongs before the classic movies begin. Most of the shows during a recent season had coverage.
However, Witecki noted: “We did have a few shows that didn’t have an organist — and man, did we hear about it.”
You can’t visit the Tampa Theatre now, because like other movie theaters it is closed due to concerns over the potential spread of coronavirus disease-2019. When it reopens, though, it’s worth a visit — and be sure to get there early, in case there’s a volunteer organist offering a pre-show. For updates about the theater, check TampaTheatre.org.
Virtual ‘silent’ movie
What: Acclaimed organist Steven Ball will accompany the classic silent film, “The General,” a 1926 comedy starring Buster Keaton.
Where: The organist will play his original score to an empty auditorium, while the movie is live-streamed on the Tampa Theatre Facebook Page.
When: May 22 at 7 p.m.
Cost: There’s no charge the watch the movie, but donations are welcome.
Details: If you want to buy popcorn, that can be arranged in advance. Visit TampaTheatre.org/popcorn-pickup.
Published May 20, 2020