A Venue for All: The Palladium Past and Present

With its stone arches and towering architecture, St. Pete’s Palladium Theater commands attention. What lies inside the historic theater at 253 5th Avenue North is no less inspiring. It’s a place for local acts to practice, perform, and entertain at a price dwarfed by the big-time costs of surrounding theaters.

“You’re not going to go broke playing the Palladium,” says the theater’s executive director Paul Wilborn.

Now and Then

The historic space didn’t start out as a theater. Built in 1925, the Palladium was originally a Christian Science church, the First Church of Christ, Scientist. Its white arches and cozy, tiled lobby ushered in religious St. Petersburg residents each week for decades. The building itself was designed by Howard Lovewell Cheney, and built by the George A. Fuller Construction, a company responsible for iconic sites in Chicago and New York City, including the Flatiron Building.

The Palladium at St. Petersburg College. Header image: Nate Najar and John Lamb at the Palladium

It wasn’t until 1998, however, that the colossal building sold to a group of visionaries who wanted to create a theater for local talent. The church already boasted theater seats instead of pews, making it an easy sell. Community leaders led by Bill and Hazel Hough purchased the building and completed renovations for around $1 million – a fraction of the cost of a new venue.

“In the ’90s, the Tampa Bay communities came together and built these really beautiful performance art centers,” Wilborn said. “But there was nowhere for smaller groups to perform.” He’s referencing venues like the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, The Mahaffey Theater, and Ruth Eckerd Hall. These theaters brought art and life into Tampa Bay, but typically book touring shows with larger budgets that sell out for high ticket costs. “It’s great, but not affordable for a single piano player or a local blues group,” Wilborn said. “You could go broke doing a show at the Mahaffey Theater or the Straz.”

Regardless, the original Palladium never hit critical mass. It needed stability. In 2007, the nonprofit leaders gifted the parking lot and Palladium Theater to the St. Petersburg College with one condition: The theater had to be used for its original purpose, providing accessibility to local musicians.  

Today, staff salaries and operating costs come from the theater. It’s fully functioning on its own, while the college provides a framework and stability. If the toilets break, or the roof leaks, St. Petersburg College staff steps in, but otherwise the theater is financially independent.

James Suggs performing at the Palladium

After shuttering during the pandemic, however, money is tight. The theater is staying afloat via government grants. Once constantly booked with shows and events, it’s been a slow climb back to normalcy for the Palladium. Wilborn remembers a time when the theater was always in the black, always busy.

His favorite room is the one least recognizable in the daytime: the basement of the Palladium, which doubles as a New York-style night club for smaller performances. “It’s just intimate and fun down here,” said Wilborn, who hopes a return to normalcy will put the theater back into the spotlight as the home for local music and art once again.

Palladium Paul

In a past life, Wilborn was an old-school newspaper reporter. He worked for the Tampa Tribune for 10 years, then the Tampa Bay Times for another 10. His last writing gig was with the Associated Press in Los Angeles. The Tampa native covered hard news; in his words: “Horrible stuff: the AIDS crisis, crime, the Gulf War.”

He was always a piano player, though, and an artsy type who had one hand in reporting and one hand in the creative world.

“I did a lot of arts stuff and I thought I was just being crazy and young, but it turns out it gave me a résumé,” Wilborn said.

When the newspaper business “went south,” as Wilborn puts it, he jumped into the arts. He left Los Angeles in 2003 to work as the creative industry manager for former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. In short, he threw parties, like what eventually became Tampa’s Guavaween. The same year, he played the Palladium as part of a cabaret series. Just four years later, Wilborn was hired as executive director, ending his role as a performer at the theater.

Beacon Dance

“I fired myself from here,” Wilborn jokes. “I thought it was bad form to book yourself at your own theater.”

Sporting a sweater in his cozy Palladium office, Wilborn has come a long way from wild nights in Ybor. But he still has the stories, fodder for his fictional autobiographical book, Cigar City: Tales from a 1980s Creative Ghetto.

Passion for performance is a family affair. Wilborn’s wife, Eugenie Bondurant, who he started dating in LA and “convinced” to move to Tampa with him, is a working actress known for roles in The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2.

Spotlight on Local Talent

Most of the artists who regularly play the Palladium are regional and local performers such as The Florida Björkestra, St. Pete Opera, and Beacon Dance. Groups from St. Petersburg College play for free, and outlying performers pay relatively low prices to put on shows.

The goal is that these artists continue to create great art, regardless of booking costs, Wilborn said. In 2021, the Palladium sponsored its first Creative Class, a program that put a total of $30,000 in the pockets of nine local artists – jazz performers, blues singers, dancers, and more. The individual stipends, delivered in $2,500 chunks, are given to the artists in exchange for a created performance. When that production was canceled due to pandemic precautions, the performers retained the much-needed funds.

“These artists, their money just disappeared when COVID hit. These are not folks that are necessarily working day jobs,” Wilborn said. “We want the community to thrive and survive.”

Find more information about the Palladium, including upcoming shows and events at mypalladium.org.