Success Stories - Historic Theaters

Historic Theaters: Saving an Early Twentieth Century Icon

Locally-owned theaters have been an important fixture on traditional main streets and in small towns across America. In their prime, these cinema and live performance venues were hubs for local entertainment and community gathering in an era when commercial and social activity revolved around the downtown. Their distinctive architectural styles, with elaborate facades and grand marquees, served as iconic landmarks of community identity and pride.

With the rise of shopping centers, television, and multiplexes in the mid-twentieth century, many downtown theaters entered into a period of decline and deterioration. Some were forced to close their doors and sat crumbling, vacant for years. Many were demolished. But some survived and have been restored as commercial theaters, arts cinemas, and performance venues, or as interesting examples of adaptive re-use projects.

Many of Greater Philadelphia's older suburbs have been successful in preserving local theaters, and today these attractions add significantly to the quality of their downtowns.

Ambler Borough Theater

Ambler Borough Theater

The Ambler Borough Theater was almost lost in the latter half of the 1990s. But through the efforts of local supporters and the new non-profit Ambler Theater Inc., it has experienced a rebirth that has returned it to its former days of grandeur, paying meticulous attention to historic details.

The Ambler Borough Theater opened in December of 1928 and was managed by Warner Brothers. It was built in the Spanish Colonial Style with terra cotta, spacious lobbies, a 1,228-seat auditorium, and a Gottfried pipe organ. Its builder, Phillip Harrison, worked on other theaters in the area such as the Seville (now the Bryn Mawr) and the Lansdowne Theater, which explains stylistic similarities.

The Ambler Borough Theater operated as a commercial theater until the end of the 1960s. Afterwards it became a Christian cinema that showed 16mm films until 1997 when the theater officially closed. At that time, a local film society had been very successful in restoring the County Theater in Doylestown, Pennsylvania as a non-profit arts cinema. Sensing similar potential for the Ambler Theater, the manager of Ambler's Main Street program contacted the County Theater's executive director John Toner, who was enthusiastic to be involved in the project. Toner connected with local supporters, and in 2001 the newly created non-profit Ambler Theater Inc. purchased the theater and embarked on an extensive $2 million restoration and renovation project funded largely through Keystone Grants from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

As funding was limited, renovation was completed in stages. The original 1,200-seat theater was divided into three smaller theaters. Two black-box, stadium seating auditoriums, one seating 150 and the other 110 were constructed out of the rear portion of the theater. These two auditoriums were opened in 2003 featuring independent art, and foreign films, and helped fund the renovation of the back portion of the original theater. This third auditorium includes the theater's original 30-foot proscenium arch which holds a large movie screen and ornate detailing on the side walls and ceiling. Much attention was paid during the renovation process to replicating the theater's original features. Paint was selected to match the original colors and carpet was replicated by evaluating old photographs. A new retro-style ticket booth was also installed. An exact replica of the original iconic neon sign on the front of the theater, which had been demolished in the 1960s, was constructed and installed in 2005. The theater's original marquee has also been restored complete with neon trim and chaser lights.

With the efforts of local theater enthusiasts and a meticulous attention to historic detail, the Ambler Theater has once again become an iconic feature and destination in downtown Ambler. It attracts over 100,000 visitors annually and has played a significant role in the vitality of Ambler's downtown, attracting shoppers, diners, and visitors from all over the region.

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Collingswood Theatre

Collingswood Theatre

The Collingswood Theatre exists as a testament to the benefits of adaptive reuse. The theater sat vacant for years until a married couple of professional photographers saw potential in the space. Thanks to their efforts, the building experienced a rebirth that has lasted for decades.

When it was constructed in 1926, the Collingswood Theatre was meant to rival the large downtown theaters in Camden and Philadelphia. This was quite an undertaking, as Collingswood was only a small town at the time with a relatively small population of about 12,000 people. Nevertheless, the Lessy family, who owned and operated the theater, proceeded with the project. Making a movie theater financially viable on revenue from ticket sales alone tended to be difficult, especially when considering the size of Collingswood. Thus, the building was originally designed as a mixed-use structure with first floor commercial space on either side of the main lobby and second floor apartments above to generate additional revenue.

The 1,200-seat theater was designed by Philadelphia architect David Supowitz, who completed many theaters throughout the region. It was built in the Mission/Spanish Revival style with a large lobby, 35-foot ceilings, and elaborate plaster and tile decorations fabricated by the Moravian Tile Works in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. It operated from 1926 until 1958. After which, it remained vacant and deteriorating for over a decade until a Philadelphia-based photographer decided to relocate his business to the transit-accessible suburb.

In the late 1960s, a neighbor introduced Philadelphia photographers Bob and Teresa Giandomenico to the Collingswood Theater. The building that housed their photography studio in Philadelphia was slated to be demolished to make room for Jefferson Hospital expansions, and they were in need of a new location. With an extensive clientele in Philadelphia, they were hesitant to move their business to Collingswood. However, the recently completed PATCO high speed rail line had a stop in downtown Collingswood and provided quick and easy access to and from the city. Mr. Giandomenico saw potential in the building. The theater's 10,000 square-foot auditorium would serve as a studio location, and the stage space was converted into offices.

In 1969, Bob and Teresa purchased the building. Since it had been empty for so long, its new owners inherited many problems, including a leaky ceiling and broken boiler. After two years of hard work, the Giandomenicos completely moved their studio into the building where it stayed until they retired from photography in 2001. Also around this time, the Giandomenicos decided to sell the auditorium space to a new user while maintaining ownership of the second floor apartments and retail space.

Today, each of the three second floor apartments is occupied. At times, retail tenants are hard to find, but today, first floor tenants include the Collingswood Book Trader, Michael Bruce Florist, and Simply Inviting, a stationary store. Many of the theater's original architectural features remain intact - all of the original tiling on the exterior façade; the plaster decorations on the walls and ceilings; the original flooring, the art deco chandeliers, and the elaborate tile fountain in the theater's lobby.

Thanks to the vision, foresight, and tenacity of Bob and Theresa Giandomenico, the Collingswood Theatre survived and stands today as an iconic building in downtown Collingswood.

Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA

Colonial Theatre

The Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville may be most famous for its role in the 1950s sci-fi film The Blob featuring Steve McQueen. The theater and surrounding area of Phoenixville were used in filming. Today, the theater, which now operates as a venue for independent and foreign films, live events, and special programming, pays homage to its roots with its annual BlobFest.

BlobFest, with the Colonial as its hub of activity, is guaranteed to draw visitors from around the country. However, the future of the Colonial Theatre as a downtown Phoenixville fixture was not always so certain.

The Colonial Theatre was built in 1903 as the Colonial Opera House by Phoenixville resident Harry Brownback. His vision was to make the borough, 30 miles outside of Center City Philadelphia, a destination for high-quality stage shows. The theater also showed films. In the 1950s new owners refurbished the theater with the installation of new seats, a larger screen, improved heating and air conditioning, and a small bookstore. Soon after, the Colonial was featured in the sci-fi classic "The Blob." But, by the mid 1960s it was evident that small local theaters were losing out to other pastimes, namely more modern movie theaters, drive-in theaters, and television. Over the next three decades the Colonial Theatre would survive under a variety of different owners, but by the mid-1990s, the theater was no longer financially sustainable.

The Phoenixville Area Economic Development Corporation (PAEDC) purchased the theater in 1996. Local citizens with an interest in preserving the venue formed the Association for the Colonial Theatre (ACT) which entered into a purchase agreement with PAEDC in 1997. ACT saw potential in the theater and soon organized a board, developed a business plan, hired an architect, launched a capital campaign, and began restorations. The Colonial Theatre reopened in October of 1999 showing art, independent, and classic films and hosting children's programs. Its programming was further expanded in the mid-2000s and today includes art and independent films seven days a week, classic films on Sundays, a children's summer series, First Friday fright lpad Night horror films, film discussions, and other community events.

Restoration and repairs for the theater were funded by a variety of entities including grants from the PHMC, the Chester County Conference and Visitors Bureau, and private foundations, as well as individual donors and membership dues. Restoration activities have included: the refurbishing of the façade to be in keeping with 1950s architecture, expansion of the restrooms, relighting of the marquee, roof replacement, installation of an elevator, and renovation of the second and third floors to accommodate staff and programming. Additional funding is sought for further restorations and general operating support.

Thanks to the efforts of local citizens and support from various organizations and the local community, the Colonial Theatre has once again returned to prominence in downtown Phoenixville, and like the movie The Blob, is a living legend.

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County Theater in Doylestown, PA

County Theater

About 30 miles outside of Center City Philadelphia, Doylestown has had a prominent role in Bucks County as the county seat for Bucks County and a major shopping destination. The first theater to open downtown was Hellyer's Movie House in 1907. In 1925, a second, the Strand Theater opened which was later replaced with the County Theater in 1938. The County Theater was built in the late art deco style and had air conditioning, a major attraction at that time period. Throughout the 1940s and 50s, the theater saw its heyday. However, in the 1970s it entered a period of decline and eventually closed in 1992.

A group of local film enthusiasts calling themselves Closely Watched Films had been meeting on a regular basis since the early 1980s to screen art and independent films. Most of their meetings took place at the historic James-Lorah House or at Lenape Middle School, both in Doylestown. But in the late 1990s they recognized an opportunity to obtain their own screening space, an interest that would eventually fuel a unique historic preservation effort. In 1993, the County Theater was given a second chance when it was leased to the group, and reopened as a non-profit with a screening of the film Enchanted April.

The reopening of the County Theater was an immediate success. In 1996, supporters embarked on a capital campaign to renovate and formally purchase the theater. Response was enthusiastic, and the campaign met and exceeded its goals. In April of 1997, the building was formally purchased by the newly created non-profit County Theater, Inc. whose executive director was Closely Watched Films member John Toner. Later that year, renovations and restorations were completed that included new seats and screens, renovated restrooms, a heating and cooling system for the auditoriums, emergency exit ramps and an emergency system, and a new roof for the exterior marquee, among other improvements. The building was also entirely rewired and new projection equipment was installed along with an upgrading of the administrative offices and ticketing system.

In 1998 a Keystone Grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) and support from the Grundy Foundation and other private donors funded the restoration of the theater's original neon tower sign and marquee. Additional restoration projects included the renovation of the lobby in June of 2009. The video projection system was also upgraded to accommodate the latest in digital media and high quality projection.

Today, the theater continues to operate as a non-profit, community-based theater specializing in independent, art, and foreign films. Membership contributions play a large part in County Theater, Inc.'s ability to maintain the property, expand programming, and continue community outreach. The theater also has had a significant impact on the vitality of downtown Doylestown, as it brings over 75,000 people through its doors, many of whom are not residents of the borough.

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