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Man behind the movie curtains

John Bell chose to step out of the limelight on stage to work behind the scenes in theater management. That choice has paid off at the Tampa Theatre.

Published February 13, 2004

BLOOMINGDALE - At work, John Bell is surrounded by gargoyles and other Gothic embellishments.

At home, it's country kitsch inside a house that outside is as plain as Tampa Theatre is ornate. It's a two-story gray affair with red shutters on a nondescript suburban street.

Bell, director of Tampa Theatre, likes it that way.

When he moved to the area in 1985 to run Tampa Theatre, he wanted a home that at the end of his often long days would take him far away from work.

"I wanted to disconnect when I got home," he said.

Not that he's complaining.

Bell is quite plainly passionate about theater in general and, in particular, Tampa Theatre, which opened in 1926 and has blossomed in the 20 years he has steered it.

Under his direction, the movie projectors were upgraded, programming has increased from about 150 events a year to more than 600, the Wurlitzer organ was restored and the sound system was modernized.

Next on his agenda: replacing the seats.

This wasn't the career Bell imagined for himself when the theater bug bit him after a high school performance in Agatha Christie's Mousetrap. It was the joy of creative expression and collaboration that got him, he said.

Practicality, however, moderated his ambitions.

"I knew I didn't want to live the life of an actor," he said. "It's a very tough life, and there's a lot of rejection involved."

So he studied theater architecture and arts administration, assuming he'd eventually manage a theater company.

After graduation, Bell worked for the North Carolina Arts Council for three years and in 1979 accepted a job at Greensborough's historic theater.

"I think the only reason I got that job was because no one else would take it," he said.

The theater had just been saved by the local community but had quickly run out of money. When he took over, there was $32 in the theater's bank account, an endowment fund of $13 and a $30,000 debt due in 30 days.

"My first job was to get to know the bankers really well," he said.

He turned that theater around, and six years later arrived in Tampa to face a much different situation. The theater was in pretty good shape. It had already been restored and was already a Tampa institution.

Bell took it to the next level.

His proudest moment - outside of his marriage and the birth of his children, - came in January at the lighting of the newly restored theater marquee, an event that drew 1,000 well-wishers.

"That's gotta do your heart good - when you see that many people come out for a sign," Bell said with his quick laugh. "But it's more than a sign. It's an icon for the community."

As director of Tampa Theatre, Bell remains immersed in the art world and gets to feel the rush of teamwork. At a Keller Williams concert on a recent Friday night, he walked quickly through the theater, surveying the scene and touching base with staff and volunteers who kept the show running smoothly while the Bohemian-looking audience danced.

Tara Schroeder, Tampa Theatre's community relations director who met Bell 15 years ago when they both served on the League of Historic American Theaters, said her boss runs a tight ship but is "a good egg" and a "big goofball."

"The year he dressed up like a clown for our Halloween fundraiser, he got a lot of comments from people who thought that was pretty appropriate," Schroeder said.

Given how much he loves the theater, it only makes sense that he found love there.

It's where he met his wife, when she walked into an auditorium at Catawba College where she was going to usher for a play that Bell was starring in.

"The theater was dark and he was at the piano," she said, remembering watching him warm up before the performance. She fell in love immediately. They talked later at a cast party, and have been together since. His sense of humor and kitchen wizardry, she said, keep her smitten.

These days, the only time Bell is on stage is when he's hosting a luncheon for potential donors, where he makes sure they have a view of the endlessly fascinating auditorium.


AGE: 50.

FAMILY: Wife, Cyndi, 48; Audrey, 26; Michael, 19.

FAVORITE MOVIE: Cinema Paradiso, a 1990 Italian film about an old movie house in the days before television. "I'm not a film snob. I like a good Bond movie as much as the next guy," he said. But he once sent a memo to his staff telling them they had to watch the movie and weep - or be fired.

WHO'S THAT GUY: It's not unusual to find Bell wearing an antique Tampa Theatre doorman's uniform and greeting patrons at the entrance.

PAPA CAN PREACH: Bell's father was a Methodist minister. "When I go to church, I always end up comparing the preacher to my father, who is still the best I ever heard."

[Last modified February 12, 2004, 13:18:35]

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