New Castle News

May 22, 2013

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

Dan Irwin
New Castle News

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.



THE CINEMA

No such trappings remain of the Cinema, the East Washington Street theater that showed its first feature in 1968, closed in the late 1980s and was razed in 2007 — 100 years after the building first opened as The Dome in the silent film era.

The theater changed several times after that, to the Paramount in the 1940s, then to the Vogue and New Vogue in the ’50s and ’60s, when it and the nearby Victor were run by the Fry family, according to New Castle native and cinema consulting firm owner Jack Oberleitner. Both theaters, Oberleitner said, were run “as 50 cent admission, double-feature, sub-runs, and both were closed in the early 1960s.”

The Vogue, though, got one last chance to shine when the Penn Theater closed in 1968.

“To maintain a first-run presence in New Castle after the well-known Penn Theater was closed, Associated Theaters of Pittsburgh bought and hastily remodeled the Vogue, once again changing simply to the Cinema,” said Oberleitner, owner of the cinema consulting firm Oberleitner & Associaties.

“They completely gutted the old Vogue Theater and did a nice job of renovating a place that was pretty run down. The Vogue had the smallest screen in the city of New Castle — only seven feet wide. When they put in the Cinema, they put in a big screen.”

The Dome also had lacked restrooms, which eventually were installed behind the screen. At the Cinema, though, patrons had to climb a flight of steps to the second floor, where the facilities were located across from the projection room.

The Cinema held its grand opening Nov. 22, 1968, with the New Castle premier of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” According to an ad that day in the New Castle News, the theater featured “foam rubber seats spaced for adequate leg room ... (the) last word in year round gas air conditioning and heating ... Rich blue and green carpeting,” which was “wall to wall” and even “under the seats” ... “inside modern box office (the Vogue’s box office had been outside the main doors)” ... and “attractive restrooms” including a “comfortable ladies lounge (with) full-length mirror and dressing table.”

(Tomorrow: The Penn Theater, New Castle’s last movie palace.)