Earlier this month, the Tampa Theatre was ready for its close-up, Mr. DeMille.
After a year shuttered tight, the historic 1926 movie palace and concert venue re-opened March 11 with the new Anthony Hopkins drama The Father. Seating was limited to 200 patrons – roughly one-sixth of capacity – with groups of seats blocked off for safe social distancing.
“We had really good crowds the first weekend,” said John Bell, president and CEO of the nonprofit Franklin Street theater. “We never actually hit 200; we came close for a couple of the showtimes. Which isn’t unusual for a film.”
Live concerts and special events typically do better than film screenings. “Singalong Greatest Showman sold out four or five times two or three years ago,” Bell said. “Those are the really profitable events.”
It’s going to be while before touring artists, and crowd-friendly events like Singalong Greatest Showman, are back on the marquee at the Tampa Theatre – or anywhere else, for that matter.
Still, Bell said, “It feels great to be open again, even in a limited capacity.”
The March 11 re-launch was carefully strategized for optimum safety in collaboration with Tampa General Hospital.
“The second weekend was considerably less,” Bell explained. “I don’t think we hit 100 for any of the showtimes. Same film. Overall, from a financial standpoint, it was just a hair better than break-even. And we’ll take that.”
Saved from the wrecking ball numerous times, the Tampa Theatre was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Its opulent Mediterranean courtyard design – the ceiling is painted as a moody blue night sky, complete with twinkling stars – makes it unique amongst vintage American movie houses.
“All of us who have the honor of working in the building, and that includes the volunteer board, I think we all sort of view this as the community’s building,” Bell said. “It’s not ‘our’ building.
“Our job is to take care of it and position it so that it can serve future generations, and people that we will never meet. It’s a very special place.”
Maintaining the facility also means bringing the nuts and bolts up to date. The theater was converted to a digital projection system seven years ago, and the lighting and sound systems have been substantially upgraded – this in addition to the numerous, necessary cosmetic improvements.
Re-opening also meant employing “space age technology in an almost century-old building,” according to Bell.
“One of the ‘choke points’ that we identified – where people gathered – was the concession stand. Because it really is a small lobby. So we went to this Noble Concessions app where people order from their seats, and when their order is ready for pickup, they get a notification to come to the lobby and pick it up. And that way we can control the number of people that are in the lobby at any one time.”
So far, so good. “There was a learning curve the first few weekends, but it seems to be working well,” he added. “And it may be one of the few things we hold over after the pandemic and we don’t have to be enforcing mask rules and social distancing.”
In the run-up to the all-virtual Academy Awards ceremony April 25, the Tampa Theatre will be screening eight Oscar-nominated films, along with several series of nominated short films.
The theater continues to offer virtual screenings through its website, in addition to the limited-capacity live screenings.
Bell is optimistic. “The crystal ball, I think for everybody, is murky at best,” he said. “The positive trends we’ve seen with vaccinations certainly foretell a brighter second half of the year. But how quickly we can expand capacity is unknown. I think that maybe by summer we’ll be in a much better place. Certainly by fall, and early 2022, the events industry and venues can begin to get back to some sense of normalcy.
“As I reminded my board, we really don’t make money showing films to 100 people. We make money when we can do sellout events.”