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His office is definitely better than yours.
You have a tiny cubicle or perhaps you are lucky enough to have a big office with a nice view. His office is 17,000-square-feet with an overhead view of 99 twinkling stars and peaceful floating clouds that can be seen all day, everyday.
You have a nice desk and well furnished office. His office was designed by a world famous architecture that resembles a Mediterranean courtyard replete with old world statues, flowers and gargoyles.
Ok, well, maybe you have a high end computer monitor with a real cool screensaver and a crisp sound system. Well, he still wins. His office has an enormous movie screen and a Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ with well over 1,000 pipes.
Yes, John Bell, president and CEO of the Tampa Theatre, may very well have the coolest office in Tampa.
“This is a great place to work everyday,” said Bell. “I’ve had opportunities to work other places and I know I could make a lot more money doing virtually anything else, but everyday I walk into this building and see where I get to work, I am inspired.
“And it’s not just the architecture,” he continued, “but it’s also the knowledge that I get to help preserve a building that the community loves, and I stress love. People are really passionate about this place and knowing you have the community behind you at all times is a powerful feeling.”
Of course, it was Bell who rallied the community behind the Tampa Theatre, a theatre that though structurally saved by the city in the 1970s, was still on its way to joining the Dodo Birds as an extinct species in the 1980s.
When Bell was hired as president and CEO of the Tampa Theatre in 1985, its programming was outdated, still showing repertory film programs (several films shown regularly or in alternate sequence in one season that have already seen worldwide release in major theatres).
“It was an interesting time because it was 1985 and VCRs and cable television were just making their ways into people’s homes on a big scale,” explained Bell. This meant that people were not going to watch re-released movies at a theatre when they could watch them in the luxury of their homes. The Tampa Theatre needed to change with the times if it was going to fill the seats on a regular basis again.
In 1988, the theatre added first run theatrical releases – Hollywood, art house and independent films – to its schedule. For instance, in recent years it has shown movies such as Brokeback Mountain, March of the Penguins, The Full Monty, and Super Size Me during their initial runs.
To start showcasing first run Hollywood movies, the Tampa Theatre needed a new sound system.
“The number one problem we had was we were showing 16mm films and throwing them 105-feet onto a screen with just one speaker providing the sound,” said Bell. “One speaker. That was it.”
In recent years, the theatre has added over 25 surround speakers, and has done so without interrupting the historic fabric of the venue. Speakers are hidden under coverings that match the wall colors and are hard to notice unless pointed out. And all wires are strategically placed under fake foliage that naturally fits in with the theatre’s decor.
“Sound will always be an issue,” explained Bell. “I have to remind people all the time that this theatre was built before sound was invented. It was built for silent films, meaning that it is an acoustic hall, so everything reverberates, the exact opposite of what you build today when building a cinema whether at home or in a mall. Today, you build theatres to absorb sound. But, we do the best we can and continue to bring in new technology when we can.”
When he was named CEO and president, the theatre was booked just 120 days a year. Today, it is booked almost everyday of the year – movies, concerts and special events.
But, what is the use of bringing in first run films and new technology if no one uses the theatre. So, one of Bell’s primary goals was to rebuild the community support.
“There really wasn’t a membership program when I arrived,” said Bell. “It was more of a ticket and annual pass program. So through the 90s we established a nonprofit and recruited members and board members.”
Members receive a number of perks depending upon the level of their membership, which of course depends on how much an individual donates, from discounted tickets to invites to private events. But, the largest reward is the member knowing he or she contribute to keeping the theatre running.
“It has really evolved and right now the foundation raises about $400,000 a year, which allows us to hire our staff and continually introduce new programs,” said Bell.
The programs are the other important component Bell brought to the theatre. Programs include the Outdoor Cinema Series, in which the Tampa Theatre shows its films in select parks throughout the county, and an educational summer camp for children that introduces the campers to the art of filmmaking, culminating when the campers make their first film.
The theatre’s most popular program is its field trip program. Each year, over 40,000 Hillsborough County students visit the theatre to watch a live children’s theatre production.
“It’s important because it builds a future audience,” said Bell. “But we really love it because it’s always fun to see the kids’ jaws drop when they walk in the theatre for the first time. I have met a number of young adults who came to the theatre on a field trip when they were kids. They never remember the show they saw, but they always remember the awe they felt when they first walked in.”
The City of Tampa may have rebuilt the theatre’s body in the 1970s, but it was Bell who added the soul in the 1980s and 1990s and truly brought the theatre back to life.
Born and raised in North Carolina, Bell lived in a number of small western North Carolina towns throughout his childhood. His father was a Methodist minister, which meant the family was relocated by the church every four years.
While attending Mooresville High school, his love of theatre blossomed, specifically a desire to learn more about theatrical lighting. He attended Catawba College in North Carolina and majored in theatre arts with every intention of graduating and becoming a lighting engineering. Catawba was a small college, though, so its theatre students had to help in every phase of the productions – set design, wardrobe, acting, stage manager, etc.
“When I was a senior I realized that I knew how to do everything but wasn’t great at one thing,” laughed Bell. “But, knowing how to do everything, I figured that made me management material because being a good manager means knowing how to communicate effectively with everyone on the team.”
Upon graduation, Bell walked into the North Carolina Arts Council’s office and told the staff he needed a job.
“The stars were aligned that day,” he said. “Because they told me they were actually hiring.”
It was an entry level position, but one that provided him with a wealth of experience in dealing with people. In the 1970s, the North Carolina Arts Council was using grant money to place and employ artists in towns throughout the state. It was Bell’s job to travel town to town and make sure the artists and the towns were happy with the program.
Three years later, at the age of 25, he was hired as CEO and president of the Carolina Theater, a 1927 movie palace in Greensboro. Bell said he thought he was hired because of his experience with the arts council.
“But it turned out I was hired because no one in their right mind would take the job,” said Bell. “It was a complete mess. There were no employees and on my first day I discovered that there was a $30,000 note due at the bank in 30 days. The theatre had $13 in the checking account and nothing was booked.”
Not only was Bell able to convince the bank for more time, but he turned it into a successful community performing arts center.
“It was a lot like the Tampa Theatre in that the community all grew up going to it, so they wanted it saved,” explained Bell. “My most powerful ally was the community. All I had to do was reach out to them and remind them how important the theatre was to them.”
Today, the Carolina Theater remains an important part of Greensboro’s community.
In 1985, Bell came to Tampa to take over as president and CEO of Tampa Theatre, which he said was a dream job for anyone in his field of work.
“The Tampa Theatre was a model for how to structurally save a historic theatre,” he said. “And the architect, John Eberson, is considered a god among architects and he was at the height of his creative powers when he designed the Tampa Theatre in the 1920s. He was the first to design an atmospheric theatre with stars and clouds overhead. Others have imitated it since, but none have done it like he did.”
The Tampa Theatre job was much different than Bell’s previous job in Greensboro. It was structurally sound and he had no desire to turn it into a performing arts center in order to bring the community back.
“If it was only a concert hall or playhouse, it would only be used 40 – 50 days a year,” he said. “I believed that this building was saved by the city so it would be open all the time and light up downtown. This is sort of our mission from god.”
He has succeeded, as the Tampa Theatre is indeed a community jewel. But, Bell refuses to take too much credit for the theatre’s success.
“The only thing I can take credit for is hiring brilliant people,” he said. “They do all the real work.”
And Bell said there is more work to be done. In the near future, the theatre needs to install a digital projector to keep up with current theatre technology, and he said the seats are the number one complaint he hears from the patrons.
“The theatre will never be perfect. But I still think it’s the best theatre in town,” said Bell while sitting in the theatre, looking around and soaking in every inch of its architectural wonder. “And it’s a great place to come to work everyday.”
Yep, his office is a lot better than yours.
"Filmlook" is ©2008 by Paul Guzzo. All graphics unless otherwise noted are creations of Nolan B. Canova. All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2008 by Nolan B. Canova.