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Venerable theater to receive make over

An effort will be made to make the theater's facade look as much like it did in 1926 as possible.

By AMY SCHERZER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 12, 2002

Not since the premier of Casablanca has the marquee over 711 N Franklin Street seen an overhaul.

"It's going to be spectacular," said John Bell, theater director. "It will give the city a new icon."

Bell is most excited about replacing the original 50-foot vertical blade sign, which once spelled out TAMPA in bright lights. The deteriorating sign was removed 30 years ago, too much of a burden to maintain. Workers had to rent a crane every time a bulb burned out.

One perk of progress: New light bulbs with LED filaments are expected to last 14 years.

As for the marquee, it will get an electronic message board that closely resembles the original 1926 sign, one with white letters on a black background.

It's a no-frills approach, just like the 1926 version.

"It won't dance or scroll, nor will it be in color," said Bell.

The original, World War II-era marquee had a bank of sockets. Letters were formed by white light bulbs slid into templates on the black background.

After World War II, the marquee's signboards were replaced with milk glass. Dark green, aluminum letters slid into white channels, a reverse of the original design.

The Architectural Review Commission readily approved the renovation, with two conditions.

The marquee's decorative frame should be made of copper, like the original, the commission said.

Bell isn't sure the machinery used to stamp out decorative copper even exists anymore.

"At least we haven't found it yet," he said. "We may have to go back for permission to use a substitute material."

Second, the ARC said the theater must retain existing marquee letters instead of selling them off at a fundraiser, as Bell proposed. Ownership of the letters can't be transferred without ARC approval, Bell said.

"I guess they're thinking another theater project might need those some time," he said. "They didn't want to see the resources lost."

The theater has multiple owners.

City officials assumed several long-term leases in the '70s, in order to save the historic theater from likely demolition.

When the lobby lease was last negotiated, in 1998, it included a clause requiring the city to refurbish the marquee.

Payment for the marquee project will come from the Community Investment Tax.

Bids will be accepted until April 30.

Chris Patterson, of Ruyle, Masters, Hayes & Jennewein, an architectural firm preparing the bid documents for the city, said the work should not affect theater operations.

Once the contract is awarded, fabrication and installation is expected to take up to three months.

"Of course, these are old buildings so you never know what you're going to find when you start digging into them," Patterson said.

-- Amy Scherzer can be reached at 226-3332 or

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