Years ago when I lived in New York, a poet friend introduced me to the idea of going to movies by myself. It’s like playing hooky, she’d told me, a little block of stolen time carved out from everyday life only for yourself. Once I tried it I was hooked, and going to independent theaters alone became my private refuge. When I suffered writer’s block or experienced a bout of sadness or went through a rocky point in my relationship, an afternoon at a movie by myself always set things right. Of course, in New York, there’s no shortage of independent theaters. In our area, they can be trickier to find. So when I heard about the Tampa Theatre, a grand old cinema in the tradition of last century’s movie palaces, I was in my car headed north the very next weekend.
From the moment I stepped inside the lobby, the Tampa Theatre captivated me. Built in 1926 by John Eberson, famous for his lavish movie palaces across the United States, the building was constructed in the Florida Mediterranean style and is meant to resemble a Spanish villa. The seats in the central courtyard—1,440 of them on two levels—sit beneath a painted nighttime sky scattered with stars. The theater shows movies year-round, including both newer films like Turn It Around, a documentary about East Bay punk, and older gems like the 1989 Batman starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson for its Friday night Rewind series. Sundays during the summer months are dedicated to the classics and range from Young Frankenstein to Reservoir Dogs, The Wizard of Oz and Grease. On this particular Sunday, I was there to see The Sting with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, a welcome relief from the superhero movies that seem to be the only thing showing lately.
The lobby smelled like fresh popcorn, and I joined the line at the concession stand. Peering ahead, I could see all the usual favorites—popcorn, soda, Gummy Bears, Twizzlers, Sno Caps—plus the grown-up additions of beer and wine. In line, I eavesdropped on the people in front of me as they debated the best seats in the house.
“The balcony,” one man said. “Definitely the balcony.”
“I suppose we could always move halfway through the film,” a woman with him said. “That way we can try both.”
I nodded to myself. It was a good plan, and I thought I might do the same. With my popcorn and Coke, I headed upstairs to the balcony and settled in a seat. About half the theater was filled, and I wasn’t the only one stealing an afternoon for myself. Fifteen minutes before the show started, a Wurlitzer organ rose from beneath the stage floor with a player already seated, his fingers waiting on the keys. An excited round of applause went up, and I could tell that both the organ and the organist were familiar to this crowd. Until Pyscho was released in 1960, the Tampa Theatre offered only silent movies accompanied by the organ. Once a year, they still have a traditional showing.
The organist moved from a ragtime tune to the theme song from Titanic, and everyone laughed and clapped. Not long afterward, the lights dimmed and the screen lit up. When my poet friend had first told me about the secret joy of seeing movies alone, I’d asked her, “But isn’t it lonely?” She’d said that it was actually the opposite, that there is something communal about sitting in a dark theater with strangers. I found that to be especially true at the Tampa Theatre. No cellphone screens lit up the darkened space; no side chitchat distracted from the film. Everyone seemed engrossed in the movie. When Paul Newman laid down four jacks to beat the villain’s four nines in a high stakes poker game, the whole theater cheered. When Robert Redford was shot at the end, a theater-wide gasp was followed by a tense silence. And when his death turned out to be staged and Redford dusted himself off, unhurt, there was raucous applause. I was so caught up in the film I forgot to change seats midway through.
It was the kind of movie you hate to see end, and Tampa Theatre is the kind of cinema you hate to leave. There was a touch of wistfulness on the faces of my fellow moviegoers as we stepped blinking into the bright afternoon sun, leaving behind the world on screen and the elaborate palace built to showcase it.
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If you go
- The Tampa Theatre regularly hosts independent, foreign and classic films. Visit tampatheatre.org for a list of upcoming screenings.
- The theater offers 90-minute backstage tours on Tuesday and Saturday mornings. Before certain films, volunteers also give free 15-minute tours of the building and its history.
- Quirky details fill the theater. Look for the two stuffed parrots hanging beside the balcony stairs, the stuffed peacock near the proscenium and the antique Spanish bureau that dates to the 1500s.