By Curtis Ross

For Cindy Liss, it's the gasps.

"I love that gasp from first-time visitors," says Liss, who leads tours of the Tampa Theatre, the renowned and venerable movie palace.

"It's so gorgeous," Liss says. "There's nothing like it around."

That's far from hyperbole. Designed by theater architect John Eberson in his "atmospheric" style – meant to recreate the feeling of a Mediterranean courtyard – the structure is an eye-popping explosion of ornate statuary, intricate tiles and castle-like fixtures, its auditorium situated under a blue plaster sky complete with clouds and twinkling 10-watt stars.

Delta Sky magazine named the theater, built in 1926, one of the world's "Top Ten Iconic Show Places," along with New York City's Radio City Music Hall and Rome's Colosseum. Life magazine named it one of "America's 21 Wonders."

But the Tampa Theatre is much more than a beautiful relic. It's a thriving and active part of the Tampa area's arts and education communities. The Tampa Theatre is known for its festive fundraisers, such as its annual film-themed wine festival and its annual Oscar Night, where guests can be whisked around the block in a limousine and arrive on the red carpet before watching the ceremony on the big screen.

The theater's ties with the community are strong, and also historic. After all, it was the community that rallied to save the theater from destruction in the 1970s.

Like many American cities, businesses fled Tampa's downtown for the malls and suburbs in the 1970s. The theater's then-owner wanted out and the building was facing the wrecking ball. Councilman Lee Duncan and Mayor Bill Poe spearheaded the effort to have the city take over the theater, seeding the sense of stewardship many in the area feel toward the theater.

Linda Saul-Sena is one of the theater's major supporters, both as a former city councilwoman and as a member of the Tampa Theatre Board of Directors. She remembers going to the theater as a little girl, and also heard tales from the theater's early days from her grandmother.

"My grandmother remembered putting on hat and gloves to go to the Tampa Theatre," Saul-Sena says. "It was a relatively big deal socially at that time. "She said her favorite part was it was air-conditioned. Virtually nothing else was at the time. She was a New Yorker and hated the heat."

Saul-Sena says she first encountered the term "historic preservation" as a student at Tulane University.

"I fell in love with the architecture of New Orleans," she says. "Suddenly I looked at things here with fresh eyes."

Through connections with United Artists, Saul-Sena's husband, Mark Sena, helped Tampa Theatre acquire its first 35-mm projector in 1988. The theater had been screening films on an outdated 16-mm projector, at a time when VCRs let viewers watch a better copy at home.

"Had it not been for that, things would have been pretty hairy," says Tara Schroeder, the theater's former director of programming and marketing.

Its life spared and its equipment relatively up-to-date, the theater began establishing itself in Tampa, which sometimes proved to be an uphill battle.

"When I would go out in the community and say, 'Hi, I work with the Tampa Theatre,' there was always, "What? Oh, that old movie house downtown,"" said Schroeder, who moved to Tampa from Washington, D.C. in 1992.

The theater built its audience with a canny mix of art-house fare sprinkled with general-interest favorites. The theater's annual Summer Classic Cinema Series, Sunday matinee screenings of popular favorites from Casablanca to Raiders of the Lost Ark, lets patrons revel in nostalgia. But the majority of its screen time is devoted to art house cinema – independent, documentary and foreign films that don't get booked at the mall megaplex.

"Every year there are hundreds and hundreds of movies that are of excellent quality that come from all over the world, from independent filmmakers, documentaries (and) classic films that are crying out to be played in a space that was specially designed for that type of classic cinema," Schroeder says.

The theater often enhances its programming with speakers who address the topics brought up in the films. "These are ways we use our community connections and bring in people to help enrich the film experience for our patrons," Schroeder says.

Perhaps the most original community connection, though, is the theater's Summer Film Camp, a partnership between the theater and the Florida Center for Instructional Technology at the USF College of Education. Begun in 2004, the camp gives budding directors as young as eight years old hands-on experience making live action or stop-motion animation films.

"I thought it would be fun to have a film camp, but we didn't have equipment or teachers and we didn't have a budget for equipment or teachers," says Schroeder.

"I called over there and said, 'Hey, I have this wacky idea; can we partner? We'll administer the program and provide space, you provide teachers and we'll use some of your students to be instructors, that will give them hands-on experience,'" Schroeder says. "Fortunately, they had a sense of humor and went for it."

The intensive weeklong session results in student-made short films that are posted on YouTube and screened at the theater. The film camp idea has inspired other theaters across the country to develop their own programs, says Schroeder, who shares ideas with similar operations as part of the Art House Convergence group, which operates under the umbrella of the Sundance Institute.

Of course, the Film Camp is more than just the coolest summer camp on the block.

"We didn't just want kids to come to summer camp here," Schroeder says. "We wanted to nurture that ongoing relationship with Tampa Theatre."

And sometimes that relationship is nurtured through the simple magic of movies. The theater celebrated Halloween a few years ago by screening Looney Tunes cartoons. One patron especially impressed Liss.

"This little boy whose legs were too short to go over the edge of the seat was sitting there with his box of popcorn and laughing and having such a good time," Liss remembers.

"He was laughing so hard that everyone around him couldn't stop laughing. We had such a great time with him."

When you go...

Tampa Theatre
711 N Franklin Street, Tampa
24-Hour Program Information: 813-274-8981