Nate, Frank (our dachshund), and I are leaving Tampa soon, and in preparation we are trying to do a very slow farewell tour of the places we’ll miss the most. This past weekend my sister-in-law and her family came to visit us and we all caught a tour at the Tampa Theater.
I’ve enjoyed catching shows the Tampa Theater since I moved to Florida in 2011. It is a really remarkable place.
It was designed by John Eberson in the atmospheric theater style and built in 1926. Eberson’s famous theater’s made a trip to the theater an experience beyond just seeing a film. At the Tampa Theater, he wanted people to walk into a Mediterranean courtyard complete with a twinkling night’s sky and moving clouds. The building’s décor is complex, there is a lot going on, but it is not gaudy, it works. (I don’t want my house in that style, but I like it in the theater!).
When the theater first opened it ran silent films with an orchestra, today the orchestra pit is covered by an extended stage. But this change has not taken away from the experience. The stage allows the theater to host live performances and diversify the its use. The theater maintains the tradition of live music with the help of a large organ. Rather than showing commercials the theater treats its guests to an organist who, along with the large consul, rise out of the stage to play a couple tunes before the film starts.
The theater runs some select release films, old movies, classics, children’s cartoons and art films. No matter the movie or event the theater’s odd and lovely interior engulfs you, just as Eberson intended, into a theater experience. It is a really great place.
(AND the popcorn is amazing, and they serve wine and beer, and there is a tiny toilet in the ladies room that is fun to giggle at, and a creepy doll head, and the building has that old musty smell that I adore.)
Our tour guide, Tampa Theater CEO John Bell, was perfect. Bell and the other volunteers wore their love for the theater on their sleeves. I have been on many tours and it is always a treat to get a clear sense of people’s relationship to their historical site. It is even better when that community who maintains the site welcome guests into the relationship. Though most historical sites need to present a feeling of community to inspire people to give donations, the Tampa Theater’s staff come across as genuinely welcoming. They want you to join them, to understand the building as they do, and to share in their timeless community.
Nothing solidified this understanding like the two ghost stories Bell shared on the tour. (I’ll keep the stories vague, you should go hear the stories from the people who know them best!) One story was about a trickster ghost and the other about a mysterious old patron. Staff reported seeing the ghosts from time to time and the legends around them have been passed down since their first sightings. The idea that the theater is haunted works in the typical fashion to establish that the restoration was a success. (It maintains enough of its original self that the people who enjoyed visiting it then continue to do so today.) Perhaps most importantly to the theater’s community, the ghost stories illustrate a continued relationship between the past and present people at the theater. The present day workers know one ghost in particular by name; address him as if he is still working with them (or against them sometimes). The ghost connects the theater’s old occupants to its new ones. The physical and metaphysical recognize each other’s appreciation for the theater and the community that it fosters. The haunting insists that the past and the present people don’t simply share the material object that is the building, but rather something less tangible–a human and emotional connection to place. Amy Tyson pointed out in her book Wages of History that public history workers are emotional laborers; they do the work they do because that is what they want to do, what they feel they must do. The ghosts in these types of stories stay around for the very same reason, because they want to.
In this emotional relationship haunting a historical site is an idealized goal. Bell said on the tour that he hopes his ghost haunts the building after he leaves. I maintain that historical site hauntings are emotional understandings of place-based significance, but Bell’s last wish reminded me that the theater’s ghost stories are not a vague unexplainable emotion—it is love. It is love that inspires public history workers to shape their weeks and weekends around educating the public and maintaining old places (often for free or very low wages). Bell’s wish to haunt the theater does not come from malice, it is not “dark tourism” thing, it is a wish to stay, to keep a love and relationship that he feels exists at the theater alive.
Tampa Theater is not unique in this regard. Tyson points that out that the emotional labor is nearly ubiquitous. In my recent experience the people at Ferry Plantation in Virginia Beach have the same relationship with their historical home. Many historical sites use ghost hunts and stories as evidence of a maintained past and shared humanity. They illustrate their understanding of past peoples’ humanities through their relationships with ghosts. They call their ghosts by name, talk to them, and admonish them when something goes missing. Whether or not you believe in ghosts the relationship is undeniable, and it is not frightening or scary, it is sweet and loving.
Having avoided the tour for one reason or another, I am now very glad I went. I knew the theater’s history, but the tour gave me insight into the theater’s life. If you want to understand a historical site for its historical and contemporary meaning take a tour lead by someone who loves the site. Listen carefully to what the guide says and you’ll be able to recognize that the relationship is much more than educating the public about facts or pointing out where the past exists in the present; it is about teaching the public to understand and appreciate the contemporary, emotional, and community oriented value of historical sites.
That is all for now. I have a few more posts developing dealing with Savannah, GA, and probably some talk of ghost tours that don’t fit into my “Oh, they are not dark, they are nice” box. So look out for those in the coming weeks.
 Amy M. Tyson, The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines. (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).