Hazleton theaters’ screens and stages showcased the stars

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Hazleton theaters’ screens and stages showcased the stars

Posted on: February 23rd, 2014 by tommyj

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They were cathedrals. They handsomely dressed themselves with the mosaics of Byzantium, pillars of Rome and modern luxuries of a consuming culture. Their lobbies heightened senses with extravagant surroundings, tempting smells and the bustling sounds of anticipation. Entering patrons were escorted into a massive room, a room where time stood still.

 Once they were seated, a small bulb, high above, flickered images onto an illuminated wall. The moving picture transported the audience into other worlds – past, present or future. Their minds traveled with the pictures and their only distractions were popcorn and candy or the frustration of a full bladder. The bulb brightened clouds of cigarette smoke, which fogged the ceiling and almost provided an added layer of security. Nicotine elevated focus, and the audience dismissed the risks of burning cigarettes, for they were encased in an asbestos-lined, fireproof structure. They were safe – safe from the world, from their surroundings, and themselves.

Movie theaters had that magical touch.

The Hazleton area is fondly remembered for its industrial past, but the region’s history is also tightly wound in film reel. The Alton, Diamond, Rialto, Refowich and Strand – these were a few among many theaters that enraptured crowds with tinsel and glamour. They adapted and modernized with entertainment’s advances, and served as a principal source of amusement for decades. 

The theaters mystified children and bewildered adults. Their projected films distracted the lonely, nourished the artists and indulged the romantics. The disgruntled worker, unhappy wife and maudlin child could all find refuge for a nickel. They were an alternative to alcohol, a stimulant that nurtured the psyche without the bloat. The films could flood imaginations with awe, terrify with the slightest turn in plot, and inspire admiring eyes to believe in life’s potential. 

In a city of immigrants, theaters introduced many to America. No language was required to find pleasure in a vaudeville act or silent film. Theaters could bedazzle without subtitles. It’s what made them democratic venues. They subtly united an otherwise economically fractious population. An immigrant father sat near a local banker; a renowned doctor stood in line behind a child worker. An element of equality could be found in film, and Hazleton’s masses embraced the medium.

Hazleton’s downtown was especially rich in celluloid. Just like the nation, it’s impossible to fully understand Hazleton’s unique cultural history without switching on the spotlights and revisiting downtown’s many faded stages. 

The Power City 

Hazleton’s cinematic past dates to the birth pangs of electricity. Thomas Edison played a role in both revolutionary breakthroughs. Edison applied his ingenuity in Hazleton, a city that became an international example of industrial enterprise. Hazleton confronted the explosive growth and mass culture experienced by much larger regions. Spring Mountain no longer housed a rural "Eden," and instead faced the economic and social problems afflicting 19th-century urban America. Hazleton had growing pains, and Edison was there to help.

 In the 1880s, the Edison Electric Illuminating Co. constructed a generating plant at North Wyoming and Green streets, and with one incandescent light at a time, Hazleton became the third city in the nation to have a city-wide electric grid. When staying at Broad Street’s Central Hotel (later Hotel Gary), Edison suggested the creation of an electric trolley system. Hazleton embraced Edison again, and the city soon ran electric trolleys throughout the region. 

America appeared imperiled by excess and growth, but this conflict triggered creativity. Edison best embodied this era of innovation, and within a decade he invented the motion picture. His first motion picture device, the Kinetoscope, quickly transformed American culture. Audiences marveled at the lifelike presentation of mundane scenes – a moving train, waving hands or gathering crowds. It became the nickelodeon era, named after the common price of a flick. Vaudeville met its nemesis. The entire country seemed hooked.

Opening curtain

Motion pictures weren’t immediately shown in Hazleton. It was an industry in its embryonic stages, and short moving films were confined to America’s largest cities. Instead, downtown was an entertainment hub for vaudeville acts. The Grand Opera House became the region’s first stage for these popular performances. 

Built in 1889, the Grand was not only a vaudeville theater, but a setting for historical moments. William Jennings Bryan, a perpetual presidential candidate and dominant force within the Democratic Party, used the Grand as a soapbox in April 1898. Four years later, the United Mine Workers congregated in the Grand to take a vote on an industry-wide strike. On May 13, 1902, under the leadership of John Mitchell, the UMW voted in favor of the strike. And so began one of the largest strikes in U.S. history – in the middle of a Hazleton theater.

In its early years, a revolting development disrupted the Grand’s productions. Devastating fires were a common problem for Hazleton’s architectural past, and the Grand wasn’t spared. In May 1892, exactly a decade before the miners’ walkout, an early-morning fire destroyed the Grand, along with the Lehigh Valley Freight Depot, dwellings, stables, and a portion of the Valley Hotel. Realizing the long-term fortune the theater could deliver, the Grand’s owners quickly rebuilt the structure.

 Following its reopening, the Grand witnessed a quick succession of new owners. Harry Hersker changed this pattern with his purchase in 1906. Hersker was a major player in Hazleton show business. He was the proprietor of the Family Theatre, which opened the previous year.

The Family was only a short walk from the Grand. One only needed to cross the corner of Broad and Church and walk westward. On a busy afternoon, one passed local gentry, pesky vendors and loitering children. Newspaper boys occupied street corners with their shares of afternoon dailies. Cutting through the crowds were miners, covered in soot from a day spent underground. Older sons usually accompanied their fathers, and both anxiously awaited a scrubbing and slumber. Perhaps a son gazed at the Pardee Mansion, stoically guarded by ancient trees, hoping he could one day possess that family’s wealth and luxury. 

Language barriers abounded and tension whistled like a teakettle. It was a downtown that lacked purity and sheltered vice. Robbers, prostitutes and gangsters abounded, and they masked their intentions amidst downtown’s commotion. Hersker hoped he could stabilize this cultural and moral imbalance, and he billed the Family as "Polite Vaudeville Suitable for the Entire Family." 

Located at Broad and Wyoming, the Family was housed in Hazle Hall, which dated to 1866. Hersker, along with his partner Harry D’Esta, converted Hazle Hall’s auditorium into a vaudeville house and added a stage and balcony. They booked innocent variety acts like "Ben Franklin and Little Toddles," and closed the theater on Sundays. It was a popular playhouse with a convenient location. But emerging competitors challenged Hersker’s showbiz reign.

In March 1909, the enterprising Loughran brothers opened the Palace Theatre, a vaudeville house of epic grandeur. James and Joseph Loughran built their theater on North Wyoming Street, at the present site of Frankie’s Pizzeria. Upon completion, the Palace was considered among America’s most gorgeous theaters. 

An imposing archway led crowds into the Palace’s lobby, which was illuminated by 100 tungsten lights. The 1,200-seat theater was ornamented with brass railing, rich velvet carpets and ivory-hued walls. Sculpted cherubs buttressed the comfortable balcony. Balcony seats were upholstered in leather, and seated spectators peered down at a bowl-shaped orchestra section, orchestra pit and especially wide stage. An ultra-modern ventilation system cooled the entire theater with pure air. 

The Palace also acquainted Hazleton with film. The theater boasted a palacescope, an early movie projector, and evening viewings ranged from 15 to 50 cents. The Palace’s trend-setting spectacles suddenly made the Family dated, and Hersker introduced Kinetoscope shorts to audiences. 

Motion pictures transformed Americans’ idea of entertainment and created an unparalleled collective experience. There was a sense of anonymity watching the screen’s dreamlike images, and massive communal viewing homogenized American culture. By 1910, more than 26 million Americans attended 10,000 nickelodeons each week. Traveling stage shows endured, but actors knew this new technology dimmed their future. 

Technology expanded demand, and more theaters opened. In 1914, H.L. Campbell, a well-known contractor, opened the Campbell Theatre. Located on Broad Street, between Laurel and Wyoming, Hazleton’s newest theater was sealed in marble, its façade clad with elegant white and green tiles. The theater’s exterior matched its strict internal policy: "None but clean, wholesome, instructive and entertaining photoplays of high order to be exhibited at the Campbell Theatre."

Hazleton was now a movie town. Downtown’s theaters were spectacles that overwhelmed the exhibited films. Theaters delicately balanced movies with stage shows, but each developed its own niche. The Grand dominated among vaudeville acts, the Palace electrified with its savvy technology, and the Family attracted throngs of children. Hersker survived the competition, and his family opened another theater in West Hazleton. Built in 1915, the Hersker was a 300-seat theater that showed silent films.

There were now five theaters within a one-mile radius. The city and country remained shielded from the savagery engulfing Europe. As World War I raged, Americans indulged in their newfound distraction. Their appetite for entertainment increased, and cities like Hazleton hungered for more.

The Feeley

Andrew Feeley made his money in the coffee and tea business, but the savvy entrepreneur wanted to expand into other trades. Movie palaces seemed worth the gamble, and so Feeley opened his own theater across from the Palace. Built in 1916, the Feeley was the character among Hazleton’s theaters, and possessed qualities in tune with the city. It was not only a theater, but also a hall to watch musicals and plays, jump into a boxing ring or play a round of pool. It was an urban theater, a venue one would find in downtown Manhattan. There were now three theaters within one city block. North Wyoming was becoming Hazleton’s Broadway.

The three-story Feeley replaced Edison’s electric light plant. It was constructed with 1 million bricks, a trainload of cement and over 476 tons of steel. The brick was beautifully designed into artful patterns on its façade. The theater’s roof was crowned with a huge electric sign, spelled with Feeley’s name and a flowing fountain.

The Power City – so named because of Edison – had a downtown washed in light. The fountain’s trickling bulbs, the Palace’s countless lamps, and the Markle’s rooftop flashing sign dimmed starry skies. Electricity meant progress, and the Feeley defined this futuristic pattern.

The lobby was paved with imported Welsh heather brown tiles. Its arched ceiling was tinted with pastel shades in watercolor. The theater seated 1,527 patrons, which included the balcony and gallery. The stage’s drop curtain was painted with a picture of Sugarloaf Mountain, which was designed by New York-based Lee Lash Studios. The fireproof building also had 36 exits, nine dressing rooms and telephones throughout the building. It was a model theater.

The opening bill on Nov. 23, 1916, included an orchestra, four vaudeville acts, illustrated news, and a feature-length film. When America entered World War I, the Feeley also became a political stage, and public speakers gave free lectures concerning the war effort.

The war disrupted Hazleton’s advancement. Scores of young men were bound for the Western Front. Theaters showed pro-American newsreels, but one movie house may have fallen victim to the cause. In April 1917, a fire destroyed the Palace and adjoining Sasso’s Furniture Store. The massive fire caused $260,000 in damages and almost ignited the Loughran’s hotel across Spruce Alley. More than 40 years later, a tragic fire incinerated what was then renamed the Hotel Gary.

The Loughran brothers vowed to rebuild, but the Palace’s days were over. In "We Were Here Once," L.A. Tarone extensively studied the fire’s cause. Tarone pinpointed the fire to a series of arsons that year. A number of political radicals lived in Hazleton, and used arson as their weapon. They opposed American involvement in the war, and were not afraid to destroy properties. The Palace’s destruction gave pause to showing propaganda films and challenged managers’ belief in "fireproof." A theater’s war support wasn’t worth the risk of a radical’s matchbook.

When the war ended, the nation celebrated the soldiers’ return and America’s sudden supremacy. Hazleton’s Don Malkames, an early pioneer in cinematography, filmed the city’s postwar scenes. He gracefully captured Hazleton’s period majesty, eclectic style and structural rise. Local dignitaries casually spoke as the film shuddered and viewers beheld their city’s prowess. (The masterpiece can now be viewed at the Greater Hazleton Historical Society’s museum.)

Age of talkies

Entering the booming ’20s, Hazleton’s downtown infrastructure blossomed. A miner’s daydreaming son no longer gazed at Pardee’s mansion, but looked above at the towering Hotel Altamont and Hazleton National Bank buildings. Nestled between these structural twins was the Capitol Theatre, which opened on Labor Day 1926.

Scranton’s M.E. Comerford built the $600,000 mammoth structure. Comerford was to Hazleton what Joe Kennedy was to Hollywood: he took over the mid-Atlantic’s film industry. He envisioned silent film’s possibilities and profited from his prediction. By the 1920s, theaters were as synonymous with downtowns as A&P grocery stores and five-and-dimes. But Comerford wanted to build a theater unsurpassed in splendor and accommodations. He befriended Hazleton’s movie players and made sure the Capitol topped Hazleton’s theater lineup. His company also ensured the theater only played the biggest attractions.

The 18,000-square foot Capitol boasted 2,389 seats and included a two-ton Kimball pipe organ with various musical instruments. The theater embraced film and vaudeville, and stage shows played six days a week. Comerford would eventually add the Grand and Feeley to his roster through the Paramount-Publix chain, but for now Hazleton was easing into the age of talkies.

Through talkies, films attained a new sense of awe. Like the pleasant surprise of a baby’s first words, viewers were amazed by the sounds accompanying a moving image. They could now speak. In 1927, the Grand was Hazleton’s first theater to show talkies, and the program included Vitaphone short subjects and a playing organ. Under new ownership, the Campbell joined the craze and promoted first-run films. But the special offer didn’t save the Campbell, and the struggling theater ceased operation the following year. Its closure signaled what was to come.

The Depression

The Great Depression was a national trauma, but the economic misery didn’t necessarily generate embittered memories for Hazletonians. Many suffered, others thrived, but Hazleton’s economic disparities predated the 1929 collapse. Numerous families were so poor that the malaise didn’t even alarm them. They were already poor and therefore had nothing more to lose. The Depression more likely affected the wealthy, but there weren’t many families with stock options. Instead, the average family benefitted from the comfort of low expectations. It’s why so many children of that period lovingly reminisce about its privations. They were young, unencumbered, and easily discovered simple pleasures.

Movies particularly brought delight, and all ages, however temporary, lost themselves in the screen. It was a period of great paradox. Downtowns like Hazleton appeared prosperous, but its patrons had limited shopping options. It was also the age of big studio films, and the industry profited from these thrifty seekers of diversion. Popular culture flourished despite widespread poverty. 

Theaters allowed people to vicariously live through film. Each movie fulfilled the escapist’s quest for an alternate reality. The escapist usually sought his or her idea of the American Dream. Period movies turned a spotlight on America’s middle class. This reinforced people’s belief in the possibilities of their dreams, that they could one day fulfill their spiritual or material longings.

Sometimes their longings became unhealthy or desperate, and they looked to theaters for salvation. In April 1934, the Feeley hosted a 15-day dance marathon in its hall. Dance marathons were common and enticed droves for their cash prizes. A Depression-era dance marathon similar to Feeley’s was later brilliantly captured in the 1969 film, "They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?"

Throughout the 1930s, roughly 80 million people went to the movies each week. This meant nearly every Hazletonian of this period saw at least one movie on a weekly basis. Seated in Hazleton’s theaters, people learned what to expect with the triumphant sounds and glitzy display of an opening logo. RKO’s buzzing radio tower could lead to a groundbreaking film like "Citizen Kane." MGM’s roaring lion eased into its roster of glamorous actresses. Warner Brothers’ stoic shield was the stamp of the workingman, and usually transitioned into James Cagney’s dark portrayals.

Movie stars occasionally broke through the fourth wall. Top names of theater’s golden age visited Hazleton’s stages. Fred and Adele Astaire, George Burns, and Milton Berle performed at the Capitol. In April 1935, crowds spilled onto Broad Street when radio’s Amos ‘n’ Andy came to the theater. The Feeley also featured headline acts, including Jack Haley, who gained film immortality as the Tin Woodsman in "The Wizard of Oz."

America’s economic nadir became mass culture’s peak. Close to 90 million Americans continued their weekly trek to the movies through World War II. It was the postwar period that disrupted the theaters’ long run.

Fading spotlight

Following World War II, an emerging medium upstaged show business. The mass production of televisions allowed people to leisurely watch shows without visiting theaters. Regular network programming began in 1948 with NBC’s TV premiere. Cable television, which transmitted TV signals without radio waves, was invented in Mahanoy City that same year. This invention transformed the industry, and the box office consequently suffered.

By the mid-1950s, motion picture attendance plummeted to 46 million per week. Antitrust laws had already dismantled the big studio system, and movie moguls were forced to revisit how to attract audiences. Their strategy launched a new era of cinema with big-budget blockbusters. Hazleton’s theater managers gladly promoted the extravagant films, for consumers were no longer spending recreation money on tickets. Many of those Depression-era dreamers attained their ambitions, and as middle class inductees they purchased televisions and stayed home. TV accommodated their lifestyles.

The Capitol devised marketing plans. The theater often booked movie stars, and scheduled their appearances with the showing of their films. The Capitol was jammed beyond capacity in January 1951, when Lattimer Mines’ Jack Palance appeared onstage with the showing of his film, "The Halls of Montezuma." Palance was a popular star nationwide during the 1950s, earning an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a psychotic gunslinger in the classic western "Shane." His movies beckoned local crowds, but they didn’t inoculate theaters from continued financial stress.

Television was too much for the Feeley, and the "Pride of Hazleton" closed its doors in 1952. The following year, the Grand installed a wide-curved "Panoramic" screen, hoping high-tech features would sell. While the Grand survived through the 1960s, Hazleton’s largest theater couldn’t withstand a changing culture. The massive Capitol often played blockbusters to crowds of less than 100. The theater closed its doors in May 1963. A "Save the Capitol" campaign was organized to preserve the theater, which was used by the Philharmonic Society. But the marquee came down, and the building was converted into stores and apartments.

The Feeley briefly reopened in 1958, but closed again until 1964. The Rev. Joseph Ferrara reopened the theater that year for his popular Philharmonic concerts. Shortly thereafter, Robert Malkames sublet the stage and restored the theater to its glory days. A sense of the golden era returned in January 1970, when the theater hosted the world premiere of "The Molly Maguires," which starred Sean Connery, Samantha Eggar and Richard Harris.

Hazleton’s theaters struggled during the dawn of modern film. The films of the 1960s broke glass ceilings, challenged social mores and intimated of a life beyond childhood’s comforts. War raged once again overseas, and the decade’s social turbulence initiated a counterculture. Audiences watched the adulterous relationship in "The Graduate" and gratuitous violence of "Bonnie and Clyde." They beheld the violence and drugs, along with the tension and moral apathy. Jazz-soaked scores played over racing cars and shootouts. They gazed at Kubrick’s fluid visuals and Leone’s Spaghetti Western glares.

Entering the 20th century’s last decades, downtown stores closed, businesses relocated, and city dwellers migrated into the suburbs. Movies now needed parking lots. Sterile multiplexes quickly emerged, showing the latest blockbusters. City theaters collected dust, cobwebs and forgotten memories.

Curtain falls

Hazleton’s cinematic shift from downtown began with the Church Hill Cinema’s grand opening in April 1969. People also flocked to drive-in theaters throughout the region. The Feeley and Grand couldn’t withstand the competition. The Comerford Co. sold the Grand to a company that began showing X-rated films. The new owners soon declared bankruptcy, and the theater reopened in 1974. But the theater closed for its final time in 1977 and was razed by 1980.

The 1980s also brought an unfortunate end for the Feeley and Capitol buildings. The Feeley closed in 1976, and its arresting brick façade was destroyed for a parking lot in 1980. Two years later, a fire leveled the Capitol’s building with a loss estimated at $1.5 million. Evidence of Hazleton’s Great White Way vanished.

Hazleton’s disregard for preservation wasn’t unique. Cities wiped away its cinematic past into the 1990s, and what remained was either thanks to luck or serendipity. Wilkes-Barre’s Paramount became the F.M. Kirby Center for Performing Arts. Old theaters in Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del., were converted into music venues. Theaters seemed to return to their vaudeville roots.

It’s now suburbia’s multiplexes that face an uncertain future. The digital age imperils every medium that uprooted the movie theater. We are in a permanent state of distraction, feeding our frazzled minds and tired eyes with tiny pixels. We can view movies on phone apps and watch television on tablets. In a single decade we have experienced greater technological changes than the past fifty years. Digital gadgetry nurtures our societal attention deficit, which diminishes the quality of our entertainment.

A certain creativity exists within technology, but it eliminates the natural form of creativity we value. Movies were always a reflection of what we knew, a validation of life in its many genres and plot lines. But now just 30 million people visit theaters. This is a pitiful number considering that the population has increased by 2.5 times since the 1930s. The Internet, smartphones and social media have dethroned the movies. The magic lingers in independent films or the creativity of a certain director. This was evident recently with the sparkling energy of David O. Russell’s "American Hustle." But conglomerates now find value in adapting comics or generating animated characters. These digitally constructed films may capture the eye, but fail to enliven the imagination.

We cannot predict how movies will survive the global computer age. But America’s bygone golden age can still be found in the region. People can watch projected films under summer constellations during Hazleton POWER’s seasonal "Movie Night at the Markle." Driving westward on Broad, the former Hersker Theatre, later renamed the Key, is now the Cinema & Drafthouse. The nearly century-old theater is the only venue in Northeastern Pennsylvania that serves food and drinks during a movie. The theater is a crowning achievement in local preservation, and allows us to remember Hazleton’s cinematic history.

Hazleton’s past is wrapped in celluloid, transparently imbedded on sheets of plastic film. The projector smoothly ran this film for decades, but its remnants eventually untangled and snapped away across a white screen. Preservation and cultural projects are under way that will repair this broken celluloid. Hazleton could once again be ready for its close-up.

Charles F. McElwee III works in the government relations sector and assists with the Greater Hazleton Historical Society Facebook page. He is pursuing his master’s degree in public administration from the University of Pennsylvania. He can be reached at cfmcelwee@gmail.com

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