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Oct. 22, 2022

Day 51: A Nightmare on Franklin Street at Tampa Theatre in Tampa, FL

Day 51: A Nightmare on Franklin Street at Tampa Theatre in Tampa, FL

Now in its 10th year, A Nightmare on Franklin Street takes over Tampa Theatre for the final two weeks in October. The event series encompasses several entertainment genres, from movies to tours, education, and even a murder mystery. Today, we’ll speak...

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Now in its 10th year, A Nightmare on Franklin Street takes over Tampa Theatre for the final two weeks in October. The event series encompasses several entertainment genres, from movies to tours, education, and even a murder mystery. Today, we’ll speak with Jill Witecki about the event and what goes into the design process. Follow along to our Hauntathon:


Jill Witecki: My name is Jill Witecki, and I'm the Director of Marketing at Tampa Theatre. A Nightmare on Franklin Street is Tampa Theatre's celebration of Halloween. We are the most majestic, and the most haunted, movie palace in Tampa. So, we pack the last two weeks of October with as many scary movies, guest stars, ghost tours, and special events as we possibly can.

Tampa Theatre opened here on Franklin Street in the heart of downtown Tampa on October 15th, 1926. So, we are coming up on our 96th birthday of projecting films in the heart of downtown Tampa. Now, back in 1926, we actually opened as a silent movie house. So, this stage that we're sitting on used to be the orchestra pit. We had a 17-piece orchestra that would accompany the films. We were also one of the stops on the vaudeville circuit. So, in between those screenings we had a little tiny strip of stage that those vaudeville performers would come out in between the film screenings. But all of these years later, we are still showing movies as our primary programming. We still have our original Mighty Wurlitzer Organ, and we still do silent films a couple of times a year. In fact, we do have one in the lineup this year for Halloween, and we've expanded. So, not only film, but now we've expanded into live programming, tours, educational programming, and really finding ways to get the community in to see this incredible landmark building.

This year's A Nightmare on Franklin Street series is our 10th annual. Now, that doesn't mean that we haven't been doing Halloween at Tampa Theatre for a lot longer than that, it just means that I've been here for 10 years. I'm celebrating my decade at the same time the event is. 10 years ago, when I got here, we would do some Halloween movies, we did some ghost tours, we had done some haunted house type things in the past, and all of them were really well received, but we had never really consolidated all of those into a purposeful event. So, with my background, working with events like Howl-O-Scream, and some of the other Halloween events around town, you know, we know the power of Halloween, we know the numbers behind it, we know the kind of draw that that can be. As much good Halloween as there is in the Bay Area, and in central Florida, there's always room for more and people are always hungry for more. So, it seemed a natural fit to take what we had already been doing so well, pack it all into a series, and then flesh it out in some new ways.

So, here we are, 10 years later. We're starting the event on October 14th, which is a Friday the 14th. Very creepy. We're trying, you know, the calendar doesn't always play along. But we're really looking to celebrate Halloween in as many different possible ways as you can. As you know, there are people who celebrate Halloween from the kind of spooky campy direction, or from the family friendly, creepy aspect, or the bloody gory slasher stuff, and we've got a little bit of all of that.

Philip Hernandez: Can you give us a little sampling of the agenda?

Jill Witecki: We have some elements of the Nightmare Series that carry over from year to year. For example, we always show Halloween on Halloween, we always work in a couple of screenings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show with a live cast, we always pack as many ghost tours as we possibly can into the agenda to take people all over this amazing, majestic building and talk about some of the spirits that still reside here. Then, from year to year, we mix it up a little bit. Our list of movies is ever changing, our list of live shows is always changing, but we always like to try to hit Halloween from every angle we possibly can.

Philip Hernandez: Talk to me about, you know, why that's important that you kind of merge the different levels of interaction together.

Jill Witecki: Nightmare series is kind of the best parts of everything Tampa Theatre does well. So, the rest of the year we are a Movie Palace, most of our core programming is film. But we are also a beautifully intimate live venue, and you can see from this little, tiny stage that we're sitting on, we don't have a lot of room, but we do a lot of standup comedy, author talks, small concerts, and shows that really fit well on this stage. We also do a ton of tours. We lead a hundred tours a year through our building. So, then, rest of the year we also have some very popular classic series. We do our summer classics every Sunday afternoon through the summer, in fact, we just wrap that up here a couple of weeks ago, our holiday classics, our family favorites. So, when we get to Nightmare, we take that desire that the community has to see some of those old favorite movies back up on the big screen, we take that ability of this building to be not only an incredible film palace, but also a really stunning live venue, we take that educational component of our tours, we throw it all in the cauldron together, and the Nightmare series is what comes out of it.

So, of course we want to bring those, those favorite classic horror movies, your Psychos, your Shinings, and your Hocus Pocus, and put those back on the big screen for people to experience. But we also want to mix in some of that live show element, being in the same room with that performer. We like bringing in the storytelling aspect, that is part of who we are as human beings at our core, is gathering around to tell stories. What better time of year than to turn the lights down and really get that kind of creepy campfire vibe going, telling ghost stories around the ghost light.

One of my favorite tours to give, of course, is our ghost tour because you know, we have a reputation as being one of the most haunted buildings in Tampa. We certainly like to claim it, but it's something that has been claimed for us over the years too. We have decades of stories of people having experiences in this building. We've done the research, we know who some of the entities are, they're former employees of the building. So, we're able to kind of bring in that aspect of it, of newspaper articles about their time here and their death, and what happened to them in life that might cause them to still be here so many decades later. So, we really do try to examine the holiday, the month of October, and the celebration of Halloween from every possible aspect that somebody might be interested in what Halloween has to offer.

But the one I'm really excited about is, back several months ago, we actually enjoyed a visit from the Ghost Brothers. They investigated the building, by all accounts, they had a great time here, and that episode is going to be dropping a little later in the month of October. So, we are working on an evening with the Ghost Brothers that we are not only going to be able to have a watch party for that episode, and all of us learn together what it is they found, but actually have the Ghost Brothers back to talk about the episode and talk about their experience here at Tampa Theatre.

Philip Hernandez: So, it strikes me as, basically, that you're trying very hard to make sure that the audience is engaged actively. Talk to me about why you think that's important, because it's a little bit different than the legacy. You know, the legacy is entertaining people, but now you are getting the community involved, that's a little bit different. Tell me about that.

Jill Witecki: Well, I'm actually going to answer that in two different ways. So, one, our architect was a gentleman by the name of John Eberson, he was the one who built this building. He wrote a lot about his design choices and what he wanted his audiences to experience when they walked into the building. This style of theater, with the night sky overhead and the rooftops, he called an atmospheric, and his concept behind the atmospherics was set design, basically. A lot of the movies coming out at the time were kind of these grand adventures that were set in exotic locations, and he wrote that he wanted the experience of his guests to be that they were walking into that as soon as they walk through the door.

Philip Hernandez: That sounds immersive.

Jill Witecki: Yes! He wanted that exotic experience to come off the screen and envelope his audience. It was absolutely an immersive experience. In fact, we talked about all the time that John Eberson was doing themed attractions long before a certain other gentleman in Central Florida was doing themed attractions. What's old is new again, you know? This idea of an immersive experience that kind of envelopes you from the moment you buy your ticket is our tradition, is our legacy here at Tampa Theatre. So, that part of it is nothing new for us. We want people to really feel like they're a part of the event, not just coming. You can go sit and watch a movie at any one of the Cineplexes, you can sit on your couch and watch a movie. When you come to Tampa Theatre, you're going to have an authentic experience, even if all it is, is a movie on the screen, which leads to my second answer.

Cinema in general, but certainly horror movies in particular are meant to be community experiences. You are not supposed to sit by yourself on your couch and watch a scary movie. I mean, you can, and you can watch it through your fingers or behind a pillow, and that's something. But that ability to sit in a room with a thousand of your closest friends and have an experience together, that when something happens on the screen, everybody jumps, everybody laughs at themselves, everybody screams, and everybody, you know, kind of gasps at the reveal at the end of the movie. That's what those movies are supposed to be. So, when I say that, even if all the show is, is a movie on the screen, you're still having that community experience with 1200 people.

Then as we go through the rest of the lineup, then yes, of course, we want the opportunity to get people out of their seats, get them walking around the building. This building is such an icon in the community, and literally a landmark, a historic landmark, that we don't want you just walking in the front door and sitting in your seat, we want you up and walking around and really experiencing everything that John Eberson put in this place 96 years ago.

Philip Hernandez: Tell me a little bit more about why that group experience is so critical.

Jill Witecki: We've always got our heads buried in our phone. Certainly, COVID did not do anything for that, people are now working from home, they're not having an office experience with a group of coworkers as much anymore. We were the first to close, we were one of the last to open as an industry. We closed on March 12th, 2020, we reopened March 11th, 2021. So, even while we were closed, we were trying to find ways to kind of gather that community however we could. In 2020, we actually still did A Nightmare on Franklin Street series, it was just virtual. So, we showed some streaming movies. We had a virtual cocktail tasting event, Spirits Fest, we would curate the cocktails, send them home to you in a box, and then do streaming entertainment that you could drink and watch along with us.

But that first night that the theater reopened, you know, everybody was in a mask, we had bands on most of the seats to distance everybody, and yet there was just this feeling of, you could feel it in the building, you could just feel the building like settling back into what it knew it was supposed to be doing, and the people coming in settling back in to like their first little taste of normal. Our CEO likes to say, we made it through the Great Depression, we made it through World War II, we made it through, now, a pandemic, and he likes to add, and all seven Police Academy movies. And we're still here.

But now that it's coming back, what we see when people come in is that they've missed that, and even if they didn't realize they were missing it. As soon as they have that experience of a shared, communal, whether it's a concert or a movie or an evening of storytelling or a lecture or whatever it is, of just being with like-minded people and sharing an experience and then being able to go across the street and have a beer and talk about it afterwards. That's who we are at our core.

Philip Hernandez: As we know, places that have long histories, they bring baggage with them, and turning that into a Halloween event can get difficult because you want to honor the history, but you also want people to have fun, and there is a line there. Talk to me about how you all have walked that line successfully with your event.

Jill Witecki: Oh, that's a great question. Our programming is so diverse and all over the map anyway, that there was never even really the question of is our core film audience going to raise an eyebrow that we're doing a big Halloween event? The history of the building, I mean the whole reason that these Movie Palaces were built in the teens and twenties, was A for all the movie studios to compete with one another because it was movie studio money that was building the movie palaces, but they were meant to be these big, grand, over the top experiences. So, to have another big grand over the top experience that just happens to be Halloween instead of Christmas, which we also do, instead of summer, which we also do, instead of a family series, which we also do. there really never was a question of whether or not Halloween was appropriate for this building.

We have talked at length about the Ghost program. They were doing ghost tours long before I got here, but you know, when I got here and when my CEO and I sat down and started really talking about what a robust ghost program could look like, and more importantly, the money that it could make. We're a non-profit organization, but that doesn't mean we're not trying to make money. Before I got here they had done like some haunted house type things and they were very popular, but as you know, better than anybody, haunted houses are expensive to build, and you have to staff them, and you have to costume them, and you really have to put the money in if you want something that looks better than your local haunted trail walkthrough that the JayCees put on.

So, being able to use what's already here, which is this beautiful building, this hundred-year history, a reputation for being haunted, a catalog of experiences that people have already had in the building, the overhead on a good ghost tour is next to nothing. All you need is the time put into the research and then, you know, a couple of tour guides who are excellent storytellers, and you've got a successful ghost tour.

Now, we've been very fortunate that we have some great community partners. We've got a paranormal investigative group that we work with, they have helped us kind of do some of the investigating that has pulled some of those stories together. But to go back to your question, you know, we did have a couple of board members, as this all started heating up, ask us, like, do you think that leaning so hard into the haunted thing is going to put anybody off? You know, should we worry about our donors? Should we worry about... It's been my experience in other places, and it really has born out here, that people who are into the haunted thing are into it. They are going to make a concentrated effort to get here, they are going to be the first to buy those Ghost tickets, they're going to, you know, call their friends and have them all come over for the investigation. The people who aren't into it, or don't believe, it's not a thing, it's not weighing at all on their decision whether or not to patronize or support us otherwise.

Philip Hernandez: Was there any other elements that you wanted to mention or draw attention to from the schedule?

Jill Witecki: I've had the schedule sitting here on my lap, you know, because it always fascinates me, how an event is built. Like where do you start? When you've got a hundred years of scary movies and literally endless special guests and presentations and live shows you could put together, how does that all fall together? So, for me, we were talking earlier off camera about being analog in a digital world. This is my analog in a digital world. So, I start with a little poster with all the days, and you see everything's written in pencil because it can all change until it gets announced. Dropping in the Josh Gates show, our Rocky Horror shows, we know we want to do two shows, we know we want it to be on a weekend. Then we start talking to those special guests and trying to figure out what nights there're available to do. How many ghost tours do I want to do in a week? Sometimes how many do I want to do in a day? And penciling those in, and just kind of erasing and shuffling until we've got the however many days this year, 18 days, set and then we start actually booking all the films and getting all the confirmations.

But one of the things that I'm really excited about this year, two things, one I mentioned earlier that we are one of the only theaters in the country that still has our original organ. We still have our Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ, which means that we can still present silent movies in their original format, in a 1920s theater, on a 1920s organ, just like you would've seen it 95 years ago. So, we have an organist that we work with, his name is Steven Ball, and he has bounced around the country a little bit. He lived here in Tampa for a little while, we just lost him to Phoenix, which it was a great opportunity, I can't fault him that, but he wants to come back as often as he possibly can. So, he's coming back in October, we're doing a screening of Hitchcock's The Lodger, a nd he's going to be playing that. So, again, talk about an experience that is so authentic, and so different, than sitting on your couch and watching a movie, watching a horror film that you know in the back of your head that somebody is sitting up here playing every note, every sound effect that you are experiencing, it's like time travel. There's just, there's nothing else like it.

So that's one I'm excited about. The other one is our Spirits Fest. So, in 2020, during the Pandemic, we did a virtual Spirits Fest. Kind of the background there, again, as a nonprofit we do a couple of big signature fundraisers every year, one of which is our Wine Fest that always happens in the spring, one of which is our Beer Fest that happens in the summer. You may see a little bit of a theme developing here. So, the third Musketeer that was missing was Spirits Fest, and when better to do an event called Spirits Fest than in October? So, we tried it as a virtual thing in 2020, it worked well, we had a lot of fun with it. So, coming into 2021, we decided to see if we could bring that into the real world. We partnered with a great group out of Orlando called Fantasmagoria, not only on their main stage show, we actually do the Fantasmagoria main stage show as part of the lineup as well, but then working with them to kind of develop, again, an immersive walkthrough experience that you were getting stories and cocktails at several different stops throughout the theater.

So, last year's Spirits Fest, the sub head on it was Backstage, and instead of entering through the front door, you actually came in through our greenroom. The whole storyline, as you were coming through the theater, was that you were the performers, and you were being rushed toward the stage all night until you finally got here. Along the way you were hearing ghost stories about the different ghosts of Tampa Theatre and having these amazing cocktails from Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey.

Well, this year, obviously we want to do it again, it was a great success last year, but we want to mix it up because we're hoping some of those people from last year are going to come back this year. We want them to have a different experience. So, I'm assuming you and, and most of your viewers and listeners are familiar with Sleep No More in New York. We can't do it on that scale, we just can't, but we can do it on Tampa Theatre scale. So, with Fantasmagoria's help, we're constructing an interactive murder mystery that, when you come into the theater that night, somebody's going to die. Not really, but you know, as the crisis communications person, I'm really hoping nobody actually dies, but somebody's going to die and you are going to spend the rest of the evening winding your way through the theater, poking around, trying to find those clues, trying to figure out who the murderer is, and trying to solve that mystery before Showtime. Of course, drink, all along the way, there's going to be cocktails all along the way as well.

Philip Hernandez: I also like how, again, it's another way of leaning into the asset. You're not building a maze for them to go through or something. You are saying, here's a story, an interactive story, that we're putting on top of the backdrop. So, as in they're solving a murder mystery in a historic theater, it's not like they're going to outer space to try and figure out what alien did those things.

Jill Witecki: Well, and we couldn't do that. We are a wonderfully successful non-profit, but we do things on a non-profit scale, and that means you use what you have, and you get creative. So, there are other organizations with a lot more money that if they want to build the alien haunted house, they certainly can. For us, building a story that, you asked a question earlier about kind of incorporating the history and the tradition. We were a silent movie house, we were a stop on the vaudeville circuit, and very clearly create a fictional history. That's another thing we talk about a lot with our offerings is that ghost tours are different than haunted houses, and we're not trying to mix the two. Our ghost tours are as factual and real as we can possibly make them. Spirits Fest is a fictional story, written about some of the history of the building with the silent films and with the Vaudeville performers. Again, working with a group like Fantasmagoria that is so creative and so, just, genius in the way that they construct their stories. Those two organizations together working on something like this have really proven to be a winning combination.

 Not too long ago, I actually had to add a disclaimer into the top of the tour talking about the fact that this is not a haunted house. This is a ghost tour, we have not planted anything, we don't have anybody hiding around a corner waiting to scare you, we don't have fog machines, or scent machines, or anything like that. So, if you experience something while you're on the Ghost tour, tell us about it, because we actually had an experience with a mother and daughter. We were up in the lobby overlook in our lobby, we were getting ready to tell our third story on the tour, and as I started into the story, as I started talking about the woman in white, this little girl started crying.

So, I stopped, because I don't typically make kids cry on my tours and asked her mom like, is everything okay? I figured she was just getting creeped out, and her mom said, when we got to this door and you were finishing up the last story, she tapped my arm and said, Hey mom, look, there's an actor over there getting ready for the show. Down the hallway she had seen a woman in a long white dress that she thought was a character that we had brought in that was going to play some part in the tour. When I started talking about the woman in white and the apparition that people have seen in that hallway, she realized that's exactly what had just happened to her. She was 12 years old, she had never been in our building. So, now, at the top of the tour, I tell people, if you see something, hear something, smell something, feel something, stop me, tell me about it, because I want to hear it before I tell you the story of what has happened here, and it happens more than you would think.

Philip Hernandez: So, 10 years, it's a long time, and this is a great anniversary. But what does the future hold for this event?

Jill Witecki: Well, of course, in my perfect world, it would span the entire month of October. Now, we have some other things going on in October that will probably make that impossible, at least in the foreseeable future. But We are always working towards expanding and diversifying the programming, not only from the film versus show versus tour aspect, but those audiences that we're trying to bring in. So, every year we look at adding new elements that will bring new groups of people into the building, maybe that have never been here before, or don't visit as often as they could.

We have been working with a local film maker who has been doing a web series called Grand Hampton. This was actually a project during COVID, you're nodding. do you know this project? Okay. So, you know Anthony Capers, He's amazing. He came to one of our events, heard us talking about celebrating local filmmaking, called me and said, Okay, here's this project that I started during COVID, and if your listeners aren't familiar, he's creating a serial horror story using his neighbors in his community. It's fascinating. I mean, the production value on it is incredible given that he's doing this out of his house with his neighbors. So, he's on season three now, I think, and we cooked up a plan where he filmed part of an episode here at Tampa Theatre. We're going to premiere that episode, it's going to be the debut of season three. So, we're going to premiere that episode here at the theater, and some of his cast are going to come and talk about it, not only from the horror aspect, but the local filmmaking aspect, and the creativity aspect of what you can do with your neighbors and a camera and a little bit of an imagination.

So, that's going to be a great day, and then later in the series, actually on Sunday the 30th, we're working with our partners at the City of Tampa and their community engagement team. Their Hispanic liaison has been helping us program a day of Spanish language horror. So, you know, we get requests throughout the year of doing more foreign language films, we do a lot. As an independent movie house, we show a lot of international films. But given the huge Hispanic population in our area, and the amazing wealth of Spanish language horror films that are out there, it was a no-brainer to plan a day. So, once that goes well, which we know it will, how do we start incorporating other theme days and other targeted audiences, and really getting some of those amazing films from other parts of the world on the big screen. Because, you know, we have a lot of great horror movies in this country, but we by no means have the corner on the market.

Philip Hernandez: That's fascinating. So, it sounds like you are, like you said, looking at the three cores that you do well, but then also being aware of new media and new opportunity, but also the community, whether it be celebrating local community artists that are creating, or by highlighting specific pieces of the community in Spanish language, for example.

Jill Witecki: Absolutely, and starting, hopefully, next year, by this time next year, our second screen will be open. So, we are in the process of building a micro cinema next door. It'll be about 40 seats, we don't have the exact count yet. So, whereas we have the beautiful big room here that we will continue to do the beautiful big movies, having that screen is going to give us the opportunity to show all of those other films that there is a place for, there is an audience for, but it's not a 1200-person audience, it's a 40-person audience. So, while we're showing, again, Hocus Pocus, or The Shining, or Psycho in here, we can do some amazing director, retrospective, or some very genre, sub-genre specific series over there, and it's just going to open up the floodgates even more.

Personally, I am a huge fan of Halloween. So, having the opportunity to plan a Halloween series with all of the things I love, in a building I love, and sharing that with Tampa and with Central Florida, there's just no better job in the world.

Jill WiteckiProfile Photo

Jill Witecki

Director of Marketing & Community Relations