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Now in our eighth calendar year!
PCR #359  (Vol. 8, No. 6) This edition is for the week of February 5--11, 2007.

The Florida Extravaganza and Collectibles Show 2007  by ED Tucker
"Norbit"  by Mike Smith
The Former Oliva Cigar Factory To Host Art & Film  by Paul Guzzo
FAIL! FAIL! ROCK & ROLL!....Monty Python Invades Tampa (sort of): Spamalot!  by Andy Lalino
The Stars At Night Are Big And Bright....While You've Got Them Crossed....Very Creative....Let The Wookie Win....3Vs and David Lee....Passing On....Congratulations....May 22, 2008....Whatever Happened To...? Chapter 6: Geoffrey Lewis  by Mike Smith
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Filmlook by Paul Guzzo

The Former Oliva Cigar Factory To Host Art & Film

Shhhh … If you listen closely, you can hear them giggling in excitement of what they believe is to come, their calls of happiness echoing throughout the 116-year-old Oliva Cigar Factory, located on the corner of Palm Avenue and 19th Street in Ybor City.

“We had a séance the other night,” laughed the 24-year-old Blake Emery in his hip "artist’s drawl", who along with his 26-year-old brother James have been given the opportunity to restore this three-story, 30,000-square-foot building. “The ghosts are everywhere,” continued Blake with a wink, before disappearing into the creepy third floor hallways devoid of any light but filled from wall to wall with Ybor City artifacts.

The spirits of Ybor City’s past have converged upon the historic building, seeing it as a major step in the rebirth of the Ybor City they once helped build but saw taken from them by the powers that be. No, these are not the spirits of the cigar workers and immigrants of the Ybor City that was taken by Urban Renewal. These are the spirits of the artists who owned Ybor City just a little over a decade ago and saw their community taken from them in favor of corporate shops and night clubs.

It wasn’t long ago that Ybor City was the epicenter of Tampa’s arts scene. With the nightclub era of Ybor City coming to an end and Ybor City’s leaders realizing the face of the historic district was becoming too corporate, there has been a push to return Ybor City to its roots as an arts district. James and Blake Emery don’t want to be just part of that movement. They want to lead the way.

Angel Oliva, the owner of the cigar factory, granted these artistic brothers permission to move into his building about seven months ago. He was intrigued by their desire to not just rehabilitate his decaying cigar factory, but also help rehabilitate all of Ybor City.

When all is said and done, the Emery brothers envision the cigar factory, which they have renamed Cigar Theatre, becoming a commune of artists all working together to produce art shows, theatrical productions, musical concerts, film festivals, dance lessons, and martial arts displays. A short independent film was shot in the cigar factory a few months back and currently a feature length independent film, 100 Tears, is currently being shot there.

The first floor will be partitioned into at least 15 studios for artists to rent. On the second floor, which still contains the old tobacco fumigator and a working conveyor belt that Blake loves to showoff to every visitor, the brothers are building two stages, one for the theatrical productions and independent film festivals and the second for concerts. The third floor, which still smells of tobacco, will be used for carpentry work such as set design for film and theatre companies.

Though they do receive some outside help from other artists, most of the dirty work is performed solely by the two brothers. They can often be found building new walls, clearing debris from the storage areas, or on their hands and knees, diligently replacing rotted areas of the floor with fresh boards. Highly innovative and possessing the ability to rebuild anything with simple ingenuity and hard work, they don’t need the multiple millions of dollars some of the corporate companies have needed to restore the other cigar factories in Ybor City and West Tampa. Blake said they can rebuild the entire building and turn it into their artist’s paradise for $1 million.

Angel Oliva loves the plan these two artists have drawn up for the cigar factory so is matching whatever investment they make, but they need more.

“Between rent and utilities and supplies, we’re not making any money right now. The building is coming along, but without the necessary money it’ll take longer than we want it to take,” said Blake. “You can’t put a price on opportunity, though. Honestly, we’ll go broke and starve if it means completing this project. Though I hope it doesn’t come to that.”

The filming of 100 Tears has put a halt to their restoration, but once the filming is complete, the brothers will get back to work, preparing their Cigar Theatre for its grand opening on Friday, February 23 from 7 – 11 p.m.

Their vision of the building will be far from complete, but they will have the basic structure intact so it is safe for the show. On the first floor they are building a 10,000-square-foot white maze of walls that will showcase the art work of some of Tampa’s best artists, including Bud Lee and Arnold Martinez as well as the art of the Emery brothers. The second floor will showcase a theatrical dragon dance show produced by James and Blake. Blake lights up when he speaks of the dragon show they’ve put together. The show will boast belly dancers, knights, fighting samurais, goddesses, princesses, funk music, conga drums and, of course, dragons.

“It’s going to be great,” he said while showing off some of the dragon costumes he’s in the process of creating. “I’m real excited.”

The show will again be held the next three Fridays – March 2, 9 and 16 – from 7 – 11 p.m.

This show, which will mark the official opening of the Cigar Theatre, is actually the reason this entire enterprise took off. While in the early planning phase of the show a little over a year ago, James and Blake were looking around Tampa for a venue. They called local community theatres for advice and were told about the Oliva Cigar Factory.

They were informed that for the past five years Angel Oliva had been trying to draw art shows to the cigar factory, desiring his family’s building be used for something more creative than corporate offices. While he couldn’t find any permanent tenants willing to hold regular shows, a few successful events were staged at the cigar factory.

James and Blake were told to contact the Ybor City State Museum Society for more information on using the building as a venue for their dragon dance show.

The brothers were given a tour of the building and were shocked by its overall state of disrepair. Much of the building had been ignored since the Oliva family moved its tobacco headquarters to West Tampa years ago. Layers of dust covered almost every inch of the factory. Portions of the floor had rotted away. Hallways were strewn with antiques such as a Coke machine, cash registers, safes, newspapers from the 1940s and original pictures of the cigar rollers who once filled the cigar factory. Despite all the work they saw before them, the brothers immediately knew they wanted the building for more than one show. They wanted the building forever, period.

“I looked around and said, ‘I’m taking this building over,” said Blake. “This has always been a dream of ours to one day acquire a giant building. Our vision was to get a building that’s so big that it’s not just used for art studios and theatrical productions, but is also a hotel so artists could have a place to stay. The Oliva Factory gives us everything but the hotel option. I was amazed when I found the building in the middle of Ybor City doing nothing. This building needed a purpose and we wanted to give it that purpose.”

Despite his good intentions, Blake said members of the Ybor City community tried to discourage him from taking over the building. He was told Angel Oliva would never return his call and that he was wasting his time. Not one to be deterred, Blake said he left a long detailed message on Oliva’s office voice mail. The next day, Oliva returned Blake’s call, said he loved the idea and wanted to meet him right away.

“He’s all about supporting the arts,” said Blake of his eccentric landlord.

This may not be the first project designed to return Ybor City to the top of the food chain in the arts community, but it may be the most ambitious. It’s as though James and Blake decided if the City of Tampa won’t bring the Tampa Museum of Art to Ybor City, they’d create their own. They’re far from your typical leaders – they lack that conservative frat boy look city leaders may expect to see from such ambitious individuals – but they have two qualities every born leader requires, confidence and determination. These traits ooze from their every pour and the artists in the Tampa Bay area have taken notice and begun to flock to the Cigar Theatre, bringing with them the positive youthful artistic energy Ybor City has craved for years.

Five artists already inhabit the building, such as Andre Kupfermunz, a painter and sculptor whose wife read about the Emery brothers in the Weekly Planet in July 2006 and immediately had her husband call them. The next day Kupfermunz had his studio space. Local filmmakers were knocking on James and Blake’s door a short time later.

“We love film. We hope more films use our space. Actually, they may kill us in this new film being made here” said Blake as he proudly showed off a severed head prop created by 100 Tears director, Marcus Koch.

Like any good film, the Emery brothers hope their story has a happy ending. They hope their dream of creating a home for all of Tampa’s artists to converge upon will come true. But they cannot do it without the community support.

“We have no problem doing the hard work and laying the foundation for Ybor City to become an arts destination again,” said Blake.

But at some point they will need someone to help them buy the concrete needed to build the foundation.

If you are interested in learning how to help finance their project, Blake Emery can be reached at (813) 770-2163.

Their official grand opening consisting of the art and dragon dance show will be held on February 23 from 7 – 11 p.m. Admission is $5. Three more shows will follow the next three Fridays after the opening.

"Filmlook" is ©2007 by Paul Guzzo.   All graphics unless otherwise noted are creations of Nolan B. Canova.  All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2007 by Nolan B. Canova.