Even back in 1926, when it was built, Tampa Theatre was something special.
It was designed by John Eberson, probably the foremost architect of movie palaces of the era. His idea was to make you feel as though you were entering a courtyard somewhere in southern Europe during the Renaissance. You're surrounded by ornate statuary and stone details, and archways with carved pillars. The floors in the lobby are richly colored tiles. Overhead, the ceiling is invisible -- you look up into blackness punctuated by twinkling stars.
Eberson designed what he called "atmospheric" movie palaces all over the country. He told interviewers that Tampa Theatre was his favorite.
These days, Tampa Theatre is even rarer. Most of the other grand movie houses around America have been demolished.
In 2014, CNN named the theater No. 9 on it's list of the world's most spectacular theaters.
Tampa Theatre is still alive, and hosting more than 600 events a year.
Most of those events are first-run movies. But a strong selection of classic films helps makes the theater's programming distinctive.
On Sunday, Tampa Theatre is offering the 1925 silent version of "The Phantom of the Opera" starring Lon Chaney. Accompanying the film will be Stephen Ball playing the "Mighty Wurlitzer," the theater's original organ.
"It's part of our history, part of our heritage as a silent movie house," said Jill Witecki, the theater's director of marketing. "For people who have never seen a silent movie, this is one of the very few places left where you can see one as it was meant to be seen."
The theater hosts three classic film series every year. "The Phantom of the Opera" is the last one of its summer classics series. Holiday favorites will screen in November and December, and October will bring a series of classic horror films.
Also in October, theater staff will conduct a "ghost tours." They take visitors to the farthest reaches of the theater and discuss the legends that have given Tampa Theatre a reputation as one of the most haunted buildings in the area.
"We have daytime tours for all ages that are G-rated," Witecki said. "Then, at nighttime, the tours are definitely PG-13, and we tell some of the more gruesome stories."
On the tamer end of the spectrum is "the man in the fedora," who was seen by Witecki's predecessor sitting in seat 308 after the theater was closed. Paranormal investigators later said they detected some spooky stuff emanating from that seat.
On the more gruesome end, Witecki said, is the true story of Robert Lanier, a theater employee in the 1950s, who was found dead behind the box office, with his skull crushed. To this day no one knows what happened to him.
If you're not into the ghostly stuff, Tampa Theatre still has tours for you. At 11:30 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, theater staff conduct 90-minute tours of the entire building, from the balcony to the backstage, and even the under-stage area. The tours cost $7.50 for adults and $5 for children ages 2 to 12.
The theater itself came back from something close to death. It closed in 1973 as downtown areas of cities across the country were going through hard times.
"We had a date with the wrecking ball," Witecki said.
But people in Tampa didn't want it to go away. The city bought the building, a non-profit organization was formed to run the theater, and it re-opened in 1977.
The Mighty Wurlitzer had been moved to a radio station and a church at some point in its history, but it was relocated and brought back to theater in the 1980. Before almost all movies there, audiences are treated to 15-minute organ concerts. People show up early just to hear the organ. When the music's done, the organ and the organist descend into the stage.
First-run movies are still the theater's mainstay (this week's offering is "The End of the Tour") and a few years ago the theater spent $150,000 to upgrade to digital sound and projection systems. But it still keeps the traditional 35-mm. projectors, so it's one of the few theaters in the country that can show old films that have not been converted to digital.
The theater also hosts plays and concerts for school kids, storytellers, awards ceremonies and even weddings. There's a three-day wine festival coming up Sept. 11-13. A live event centered around the PBS series "Big Blue Live" is set for Sept. 2, with a panel discussion featuring marine biologists.
Concerts used to be a staple of the Tampa Theatre season, and such acts as the Police, Tom Waits, the Ramones and Elvis Costello have performed there.
Changes in the concert industry have limited the number of live music events Tampa Theatre can host recently, Witecki said. But she's expecting the concert calendar to expend again soon.
Details: 3 p.m. Aug. 30, Tampa Theatre, 711 N Franklin St, Tampa. Tickets: $12 adults, $10 students, seniors military and members. Information: 813-274-8981, tampatheatre.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919.