tampabay.com

Into the classics

Among Tampa Theatre's jewels is a woman who loves old, unique buildings. But she also appreciates new, ribald jokes.

By RICK GERSHMAN
Published December 9, 2005


DOWNTOWN - It's a good thing Tampa Theatre is Tara Schroeder's second home.

A few months ago, she pretty much lost her first one.

Schroeder, the theater's community relations manager, was born and raised in New Orleans. She went to Loyola University there. Her parents and most of her family live there.

She was there, in fact, as Hurricane Katrina bore down.

The family fled in three cars. Schroeder's brother John headed to Houston but went back a day later as the city flooded. No one heard from him for three days.

He eventually turned up in an airplane hangar, safe and, well, no less sound than usual.

"We thought he was dead," Schroeder said, laughing. "The dumb a--."

Schroeder and her mother had headed east, hitting a patch of hideous weather just as the hurricane came through. Schroeder - rhymes with loader - recalled phoning her boss and buddy, Tampa Theatre director John Bell.

She asked him to check their location on the weather.com Web site.

His reply, which Schroeder recited in a commanding, authoritative voice: "You are in the cone of death. Keep driving."

She laughed at the memory, her voice echoing through the Tampa Theatre, where she sat in the balcony this week.

Later, Schroeder was being photographed on Franklin Street, in front of the iconic theater where she has worked for more than 13 years.

Someone told her an old bartender joke, the one about the pirate who walks into a bar with a steering wheel in his fly. Schroeder howled with laughter at the unprintable punchline and flashed the bright smile patrons have enjoyed for more than a decade.

See, she loves this place. She loves her job. She'd better - next April Fools' Day, she will have been here exactly 14 years.

By some standards, that makes her the rookie. Sure, she has a couple of years on Mitchell Martin, the house manager, and Cathy Prance, the operations director.

But Bell is celebrating his 20th year as the theater's director, and stage manager Gary Ratliff and chief projectionist Randy Stice predate him by several years.

It's a very small staff with very little turnover.

Why do people stay so long?

"Brilliant management," Bell deadpanned, then gestured about the grand auditorium: "Seriously, can you imagine coming into this place to work every day? It's just a great place to come to work."

Schroeder has seen tons of celebrities over the years, but her greatest memories are of everyday people. Like the 6-year-old girl and her grandmother, who showed up for The Wizard of Oz wearing matching ruby red slippers.

Then there's the elderly man Schroeder spotted gazing wistfully at the marquee. When she asked if he had been there before, he regaled her with a tale of courting a young lady in the balcony when he was a teenager.

Tampa Theatre is in its 79th year, after all.

For Schroeder, this felt like home long before she moved to Tampa.

After earning a communications degree, she worked in Washington, D.C., for the League of Historic American Theaters. Bell was on the league's board.

"I always loved historic places," said Schroeder, who lives in Seminole Heights. "At the league, they paid me for running around the country and visiting historic theaters. And Tampa Theatre was always my favorite."

When the position came open in 1992, Schroeder said, she knew it was for her.

Her duties include handling media and public relations, film programs, marketing, doing tours and coordinating educational programs. Her boss is pleased with the results.

"We've got a small staff, and everyone has to pitch in," Bell said. "But Tara has just become indispensable.

"She not only attacks her job with passion but everything we ask her to do. For many people, she's the public face of Tampa Theatre."

-Rick Gershman can be reached at rgershman@sptimes.com or 813 226-3431. His blog is at www.sptimes.com/blogs/tampaarts Tara Schroeder

AGE: 42

JOB: Community relations manager, Tampa Theatre

MARITAL STATUS: Single but hopelessly in love with the theater.

BRUSH WITH CELEBRITY: Steve Guttenberg. There were lots of other ones, too, but we're sticking with the guy from Three Men and a Baby who wasn't Tom Selleck.

OR: Ted Danson.

OR: The baby.

ON THE THEATER'S DIVERSE PATRONS: In one day, a radio personality introduced George and Barbara Bush on the stage at 8 a.m. during a Bob Dole campaign tour stop. At 8 p.m., the same radio guy was wearing fishnet stockings and introducing The Rocky Horror Picture Show.