Grantee Feature: Tampa Theatre Remains a Beacon in the Midst of Pandemic

About Tampa Theatre
Built in 1926, Tampa Theatre is a passionately protected landmark and one of America’s best-preserved movie palaces. The majestic movie palace is owned by the City of Tampa and operated by the not-for-profit Tampa Theatre Foundation, whose mission is to protect, preserve and program the Theatre as a dynamic film and cultural center for its community.

On Thursday, March 12, Tampa Theatre made the difficult decision to close in the face of rising concerns over COVID-19. Nearly three months later, the movie palace remains closed, waiting for the opportunity to reopen safely. We asked long-time President and CEO John Bell what the organization has been doing during the shutdown to stay connected with its community.

Tampa Theatre’s marquee thanking front-line responders in the COVID crisis.

In an average year, the historic Tampa Theatre welcomes guests to 700+ film screenings, live shows, fundraisers, tours, community events and educational programs. Over the past two years, the 1926 movie palace has set attendance and box office records – success launched in large part by the December 2017 completion of the landmark’s first major restoration project in 40 years.

On March 12, that upward trend came to a screeching halt.

CEO John Bell wrote in an email to patrons:

“This beautiful landmark has welcomed tens of millions of people over the past 94 years, but now it feels forlorn and abandoned, work halted mid-stream when its caretakers were sent home to stay safe.”

The Theatre remains dark over COVID-19 concerns.

In the days immediately following the closure, team members were consumed with communicating cancellations and issuing refunds. But they quickly turned their efforts to finding innovative ways to stay relevant and engaged.

Regular “social streaming” suggestions on the Theatre’s social media pages offer themed playlists of movies easily found on popular streaming channels for film fans, and weekly Friday Movie Trivia contests invite Facebook followers to show off their cinematic knowledge.

“Today’s technology gives us the unique ability to stay connected with film lovers virtually.”

John Bell, CEO of Tampa Theatre

In partnership with fellow art house cinemas and independent film distributors across the country, Tampa Theatre launched a Virtual Cinema program that offers ticketed screenings of new releases and specialty films, a portion of which directly benefits the Theatre. In more recent weeks, patrons have had the opportunity to bring home a taste of Tampa Theatre: Popcorn Pickup dates offer to-go popcorn, candy and other concessions to enjoy during those living-room screenings.

Popcorn Pickup offers to-go concessions on select Fridays in-front of the Theatre.

The Tampa Theatre Movie School initiative gives parents with kids of all ages the tools to make movies the basis for guided research, art, dramatic play and discussion-based learning. Soon, the Theatre plans to announce week-long virtual programs to replace their popular Summer Film Camp that isn’t able to start this month as originally planned.

“We’ve always felt that nothing can rival the magic of coming to a majestic movie palace to enjoy great cinema. So while it hurts not to be able to welcome our fans and friends to gather in person, we continue to look for ways to provide unique cinematic experiences for our patrons.”

That technology, Bell says, is what made it possible for Tampa Theatre to make a return to its 1926 roots recently by live-streaming a silent film, accompanied by an organist playing to an empty auditorium. The General, LIVE!, which featured acclaimed organist Dr. Steven Ball on the Mighty Wurlitzer,streamed on the Theatre’s Facebook page for about 200 viewers, and has since been viewed several hundred more times on YouTube.

Dr. Steven Ball plays to an empty auditorium, surrounded by webcams.

“It seems almost trite at this point to say that we are in a period of profound uncertainty: We are all taking this day by day, week by week, and month by month… But I do know one thing for certain: when this has passed, people will need the beautiful, historic Tampa Theatre more than ever as a place to gather, embrace each other, and celebrate our collective humanity once again.”

For more information, please visit Tampa Theatre online at or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @tampatheatre.

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