If you are planning a trip to Tampa, Florida you may already have a list of places you’d like to visit while you are here. I’m sure most of those lists are pretty much the same. Unfortunately, few of those lists likely contain the Tampa Theatre. Who wants to visit a movie theater on their vacation, anyway? You do. Yes, it’s a beautiful historic building dating back to 1926. Of course, you can grab some popcorn and soda and enjoy both recent releases and classic films there. The pipe organ performances alone are worth the price of admission. It was the first commercial building in Tampa to have air conditioning (man-made air, it was advertised at the time), so it’s never a bad idea to get out of the heat. And if you’re into those haunts and ghosts that have populated our 31 Nights of Terror, then you absolutely can’t afford to miss Tampa Theatre. You see it’s also been described by more than one international paranormal expert as the most haunted site in town. Do I have your attention now?
I was invited to take the traditional balcony backstage tour of the building some time ago. These are open to the public often, and I can’t recommend it enough if you get the chance. But this one was different. The October tours include a lowdown on the permanent residents at Tampa Theatre. I’m talking about the ghosts. Now I know I have your attention.
When you first enter the historic building, you can’t help but notice the wonderful tile and ornate plaster work. Gargoyles line the ceilings, and there are faded tapestries that date back to the building’s original days. As you gaze upon these wonders, don’t be surprised if you run into Robert. No, Robert’s not an employee, at least not anymore. Robert was a ticket-taker in the late 1950’s. He would entertain the patrons. He would take your ticket. Do a spin and click his heels and hand you back the stub. On a Friday morning in May 1959 Robert was found dead on that very floor. His head was crushed and his paycheck gone. Sounds like a simple case of getting killed over your pay, and that may be exactly what it was…except that Robert is said to appear from time to time, clicking his heels to entertain a new generation of movie-goers. Looks like Robert may have lost his life over a half-century ago, but like the building in which he makes his home today, he hasn’t lost his flair for the dramatic.
Don’t be disappointed if you don’t catch Robert’s act as you enter the theatre. If you ascend to the balcony you might hear the rattle of keys. If you do, don’t bother to check your own pocket. Those aren’t your keys. They likely belong to Joe the Janitor. If you happen to see a spill don’t even try looking for Joe to clean up the mess. You see, Joe hasn’t worked here in quite some time. In fact, Joe’s been dead for decades. Whoever said you can’t take it with you wasn’t referring to keys. Joe’s still doing the jingle-jangle at Tampa Theatre.
If Joe doesn’t make an appearance, all is not lost. In the old days theaters had a projectionist. This was, in fact, a very skilled position. You had to be able to change reels without the audience ever knowing there was a change. If you were the best, the changeover was seamless. Fink was the best. He was the theatre’s projectionist from 1930-1965. For 35 years he made sure your movie-going experience was flawless. When you’ve been on the job that long, it gets hard to leave. And Fink wasn’t going to let a little thing like a fatal heart attack keep him from his appointed rounds. He had a routine. He’d carry the movie reels, his coffee and a lit cigarette up the stairs to the projectionist booth. There he shaved and put on a three-piece suit. He threaded the film and entertained the public for 35 years. Frank’s been looking over his replacements ever since. He’d tap on a projectionist’s shoulder to keep him focused on the film. Needless to say, the place had a hard time keeping projectionists. The theatre no longer uses those old projectors. Even here we’ve entered the digital age. The projectors and their operators might be gone, but Fink remains tapping on shoulders. You also might smell smoke or coffee or lilac which was in the shaving lotion Fink used.
The ghosts aren’t limited to former employees. There’s The Woman In White who was killed by a stagecoach outside the theatre site before it was constructed. Here we’re going back to the 1800’s, but she appears to be wandering the building’s hallways. She apparently scared the you-know-what out of one of the concession workers.
The various haunts have been documented by several renowned mediums and paranormal investigators. But even if you have a healthy skepticism of these kinds of events, as I myself do, you can’t help but wander through these old halls and feel the presence of the hundreds of thousands or more who have passed this way in almost 90 years. The buildings abundant atmosphere enhances these feelings tremendously. There is something contained in these walls to be sure. Perhaps there aren’t really any ghosts. Who’s to say for sure. One thing is certain, There is an uncanny feeling of time that permeates your scenes when you are here. It places you in a state of mind that can’t help but be open to the spirits that might have once populated this place. History has happened here. History is still happening here, and I strongly urge you to experience it yourself. If we do get to hang around as ghosts when we die, I can’t think of a better place I’d want to haunt. I wonder what kinds of stories they’ll be telling then.
I have to thank the marvelous Jill Witecki for providing us with a memorable visit. It’s far too short at 90 minutes. Her enthusiasm is catching, and I suspect her audiences are always one or two larger than she knows.
Bang it here to find out what’s going on at Tampa Theatre Tell them Fink sent you.