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May 22, 2013

Movie Memories, Part 3: The Hi-Lander and Cinema theaters were the last two New Castle movie houses to go dark

NEW CASTLE — Although the downtown once was dotted with movie theaters, one of the last to close was well up the North Hill.

The 750-seat Hi-Lander opened in 1952, the result of a joint effort by two pairs of area drive-in owners: Al Tate and John Wincek (Highway 51 near Darlington, and John Favorite and Joe Glorioso (Blue Sky near Zelienople). It was one of just three New Castle theaters — the others being the Penn and the Regent — equipped to project 3D movies, according to Richard Kalata, a New Castle native and former local projectionist now living in New Jersey.

“It was very modern for the time, with a 12-seat smoke room on the left side of the projection room and a baby cry room on the right side,” recalled Kalata, who also worked projection rooms at the Hi-Lander and various other local theaters.

“The theater was the only local one to have a curtain,” Kalata said, as well as “a giant, panoramic screen and four-track magnetic stereo sound with surround.”

However, he noted, the latter was not often used “because of extra rental cost and availability of magnetic prints.”

Kalata recalled movie star Aldo Ray visiting the Hi-Lander in 1955 to promote one of his films, as well as a “giant trailer” being placed outside the theater as a tie-in with the 1953 Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz comedy “The Long Long Trailer.”

Meanwhile, Kalata’s cousin, Dave — also a former projectionist — recalled a rather obscure “world premiere” that took place at the Hi-Lander on May 10, 1967.

The film was called “Conception 3,” and one of its stars was a Bia Corisss. Neither the movie nor the star pops up in almost any Internet search you care to try. The movie’s male lead, Edson Stroll, can be found in connection with other roles he inhabited — such as crewman Virgil Edwards on TV’s “McHale’s Navy” and Prince Charming in the film “Snow White and the Three Stooges” — but not linked to anything by the name of “Conception 3.”

Nonetheless, the event featured appearances by WIIC (now WPXI) personalities Bill Cardille and By Williams, as well as Corisss herself.

“The basis (of the film) was a young Amish man leaves to see what the real world was like and he gets into a lot of trouble,” recalled Dave Kalata, who was working as a Hi-Lander usher and candy seller at the time. “They only ran it one time, and I don’t think it ever was released, and I’ve never seen anything on it.”

North Hill resident Leo Mickey, the Hi-Lander’s final manager, said that as the theater approached its end, some thought was given to converting it to a multi-screen cineplex, but those plans were scrapped when it was discovered that the cost would have been prohibitive.

Today, the velvety red seats — which slid back when you sat down — remain in the Hi-Lander’s dark, musty auditorium, looked down upon by a tattered screen and twinkles of light squeezing through rusting double doors and a perforated rear wall.

The concession stand — including the popcorn machine — is still in place, and 1950s-era signs remain to mark the former restrooms and the cry room. On what were once exterior walls flanking the now-missing box office, movie posters in glass wall cases still exhort nonexistent customers to consider buying boxes of candy or Cinemette Theaters gift certificates.

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