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May 23, 2013

Movie Memories, Part 4: Penn Theater remembered for opulence, Leo Mickey’s weekend kiddie shows

NEW CASTLE — When today’s New Castle residents recall the city’s former movie theaters, the Penn may be the most fondly remembered.

Built in the 1920s, the Penn “was the first one (downtown) to be built as a full-fledged, deluxe theater,” said Jack Oberleitner, a New Castle native and owner of a cinema consulting firm that bears his name. Many of its predecessors and contemporaries had opened as nickelodeons in converted storerooms, but “pretty much until the time it was torn down, the Penn was considered the leading, first-run theater in New Castle.  If there was a big movie coming to town, you just automatically assumed it would be at the Penn.

“It was just a neat place to go. It had the nicest seats. It had what we used to call the balcony, but it was actually a stadium section in the back, and that was a wonderful place to go on dates. You tried to get the person you were dating to sit as close as possible to the projection booth, all the way in the back.”

Oberleitner recalled a “stylish red and gold, Art Deco style interior ... enhanced by six large Tiffany-style chandeliers on the auditorium ceiling.”

“Built as a film theater without a true stage,” he said, “the proscenium arch and red velvet drape were covered by a wall-to-wall CinemaScope screen in the early 1950s. Sadly, the Penn was never wired for stereo sound.”

Richard Kalata spent some time as a projectionist at the Penn, where his father, George, had held the job from 1929 until the 1,100-seat theater closed for good in 1968.

“The Penn closed for a summer in the early 1950s because of competition from drive-in theaters, television and the lack of air conditioning,” Kalata recalled. “The theater was completely remodeled with new seats and air conditioning.

“It remained the ‘Showplace of New Castle’ mainly because of the outstanding leadership of Leo Mickey.”

Mickey, who still lives on the North Hill, did stints at various times managing the Penn, the Hi-Lander, the State, the Cinema and later, the Westgate Cinemas. He and the Penn may be best remembered for their Saturday morning kiddie shows, which Oberleitner described as “17 cartoons and some schlocky feature like ‘Radar Men from the Moon.’ ”

“But the neat part,” he went on, “was that in between, Mr. Mickey – as everybody called him – would go up on the little tiny stage and play games with the kids. He had prizes he had gotten from local merchants, and he filled the theater up every single time they had a matinee like this.

“That was a big deal; that was a fixture in New Castle. Probably anyone who is somewhere between 50 and 80 now has very fond memories of the kiddie shows at the Penn.”

The Penn was located on North Mercer Street, where Huntington Bank’s drive-thru now is located. Though it was outlived by the Cinema, the Penn’s demise may have best captured the emotions of a town losing its longtime entertainment houses, one by one.

“The day the wrecking ball hit the side of the Penn Theater a large crowd assembled to watch,” Oberleitner wrote at cinematreasures.0rg. “Repeatedly, the ball struck the wall with no obvious result. The crowd cheered each time until, after many tries, the ball finally broke through the wall of the venerable, old showplace and the crowd became silent, a tear in many eyes.

“A part of their personal history was soon to be gone to make way for a bank drive-up kiosk.”

(Tomorrow: Thumbnails of other former local theaters)

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