The Tampa Theatre’s crowdfunding effort to replace its sputtering popcorn machine began a week ago, but the $10,000 it needs is already within reach.
As of Thursday, the theater was less than $2,000 away.
“We expected it to move quickly, but we didn’t expect it that quickly,” said Jill Witecki, theater spokeswoman. “People seized on it.”
Popcorn, it turns out, is no small part of the nonprofit theater’s livelihood. Ticket sales and concessions -- namely popcorn -- make up 60 percent of its annual operating budget.
Many patrons don’t know that. Nor are some aware the theater hosts some 600 events each year, Witecki said, making it one of the busiest historic theaters in the country.
“The idea that we’re an old theater with nothing going on couldn’t be further from the truth,” she said.
The popcorn machine, in use for more than 15 years, began to show its age about two months ago. As a feature began playing in the auditorium, an employee started popping a new batch. That’s when an oil pump on the old machine began to spark and burn.
An employee put out the flames without disrupting the movie, Witecki said. The only clue to customers was a haze in the air left by the fire extinguisher.
Repairs and maintenance cost the theater $2,000 and forced it to buy popcorn from a multiplex for a week until it got its machine running.
That’s when the theater turned to crowdfunding.
Some have asked why the theater can’t just tune up its old popper. The old machine is well beyond its prime, Witecki said, making it a drain on resources.
The machine the theater has its eye on, a Gold Medal model #2911ENB, with a 52-ounce kettle, can pop 10 gallons of corn at once. That would double the amount the theater can pop at once, helping it meet the demand of higher attendance.
Last week’s free showing of Dead Poets Society, for example, drew 1,300 people – an outlier in attendance numbers, but an idea of the big crowds the theater is capable of attracting.
Tampa Theatre has earned a reputation for good popcorn because it’s made fresh 30 minutes before each showing, Witceki said. That won’t change with a new machine, as some have wondered.
“If a restaurant gets new spoons, it doesn’t change the flavor of your favorite dish,” she said.
The theater is long overdue for a full renovation. If it were to replace wiring, plumbing and seats, among other needs, and repainted its elaborate interior designed like a Mediterranean courtyard, the cost would amount to about $10 million.
She’s unsure whether the theater will use crowdfunding for another project, but one to replace its seats, long a complaint of customers, is possible.
“We think that’s a project people can get behind,” she said. “No pun intended.”
You can reach the theater's crowdfunding site here .