Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Artist at the Tampa Theater

Since late 1926 the Tampa Theater  at 711 Franklin Street has provided patrons with a magnificent setting for viewing moving pictures.  It was by fortune that friends called me to an evening out in this old grand movie palace to see no other than the modern silent film "The Artist" set in 1927.  It is unusual that it would take a French director, Michel Hazanavicius with a French actor, Jean Dujardin to tell us this wonderfully entertaining story of American silent films.  Check out Dujardin's spy spoofs OSS 117 Lost in Rio and later OSS 117 Cairo Nest of Spies, funny, funny films.  To me going to see this film was great but going to see the movie palace was spectacular for it brought back a lot of historic memories.  

I grew up in Los Angeles where movie palaces were a dime a dozen.  As a teenager I would go downtown LA to see 3 movies for 25 cents in the late 1960s.  They were great, action, cheesy, and well you name it sort of movies.  The audiences were strange at best but my friend Bill McCann and I would get money from our parents to get Chinese food and sit through multiple sittings at once great and now somewhat derelict movie palaces.  We went to the Orpheum, The Palace, The Tower, The Million Dollar, The Los Angeles and I am sure I am missing one or two.  My favorite was the Los Angeles which was a take off on the Palace of Versailles and its hall of mirrors.  When I first saw visited it was a sad story, but in the dark, as they say, "all cats look gray".

As luck would have it the Tampa has a Wurlitzer organ that comes out from the floor and plays some dandy  tunes prior to the showing of the main feature like I remember from many a wonderful performance at the Castro Theater in San Francisco.  The proscenium arch of the Tampa was meant to show classic framed movies from its period.  CinemaScope or Panavision projected images would have a hard time at the Tampa with its small square screen, but for The Artist, it was perfect.  It could not have evoked a more appropriate setting.

The issue with these limiting screen has been solved in a most unusual way at The Grand Rex,  one of Paris'  largest movie palaces from the 1930's.  It was here that I saw the latest version of King Kong, dubbed in French no less, a few years ago.  When the worms start eating the men I thought I would jump from the balcony for the immensity of the screen and its effect. Seating is limited to the upper balcony for these mega screen events and a massive screen the width of the building drops from the ceiling so you can see IMAX and other spectacular modern films.  It is not so at the Tampa, but then there are many modern movie houses in all the malls for typical films.  What is wonderful about The Tampa is that it functions as a performing arts venue and movie house showing classic film and film festivals in a day when most people stay at home glued to their 70 inch screens.

main hall and lobby below

Two images above by Preservation Tampa
The artist is a simple story of what happens to a silent movie star in the new world of talkies.  Nothing shatteringly original, but it offers a film classic to the way silent films were made with over dramatization, animal performer and no major sound track per se.  So it gives us a glimpse at when films were not so over produced as they are now.  I was recently watching a science fiction spectacular Transformers: Other side of the Moon and I finally realized what they meant that these films are geared for teenage boys.  It was so noisy I had to lower the volume down and finally abandoned watching a movie that was nothing but going from one massive special effect costing millions to another.  Teen age boys have changed!

The details at The Tampa are wonderful.  It is a Spanish Baroque colonial village with an open moonlit ceiling where you see flickering stars.  Originally moving clouds would be projected on the vaulted sky.  This type of movie palace was termed "Atmospheric".  At one point there were doves loose in the courtyard main theater.  That must have been fun! The theater has wonderful smoking rooms  and water fountains and doors, and trim suffering some of the same ravages as my house has faced with termites.  All in all is still all there and with luck and more interest it will be restored one day.  The Tampa was designed by Australian John Eberson who also designed movie palaces in Europe and in Australia.
foyer entrance light
Michigan Theater, Detroit, image Bob Jagendorf
The Tampa Theater is a gem in a world of lackluster boxes with screens in malls.  I am surprised how many cities have razed their old film palaces for parking lots or for no reason at all.  I will say that the crowd the night we attended was small at best, but it is still nice to know that it is there and has a life for live performers and serves a very select film going audience to enjoy films the way they were intended to be seen.  As I sat enjoying the baroque opulence I kept having this feeling that I had been in this theater before which was not the case.  In fact, I had gone as a kid fresh from Cuba, to its sister The Olympia Theater  also by Eberson also in 1926 and in Miami. It was a wonderful evening getting away from the kitchen remodel that has taken my every waking moment of demolition and recreation and will soon debut on the blog.  Happy Gardening!