New Castle News
NEW CASTLE —
If you ever found footprints on the toilet seat at the Penn Theater, blame Dave Kalata.
Kalata, a New Jersey resident and New Castle native, once worked at as a projectionist at the now-defunct North Mercer Street cinema, as well as at others around the New Castle and Youngstown area. But before that, he was simply a kid who loved going to the movies.
“I don’t know how many times I went into the Penn Theater for their Saturday morning cartoons,” Kalata said of the movie house that sat on lots now occupied by Huntington Bank’s drive-through. “They would normally empty out the theater before the main feature; maybe it was starting at 4 or 4:30, something like that.
“I would tell a couple of the other guys I went with, ‘I’m going to stay and see the other show.’ ‘But it’s going to cost you 25 cents,’ or whatever it was. I said ‘It’s OK, let me see what I can do.’ ”
At that point, Kalata would head to the restroom, enter a stall and stand on the toilet seat. He’d wait while an usher cleaned the facility and until he could hear people starting to enter the theater again.
“Then I would walk out and walk into the auditorium with them,” he said.
Chances are, if you were born anytime between the late 1920s and the 1990s, you, too, have memories of heading into downtown New Castle to see a film. It was an era that ended in 2003 with the closing of The Cinema, which stood next to the New Castle Beauty School on East Washington Street.
Others that folks still alive today may recall include the Victor, the Vogue and Paramount (pre-Cinema theaters in the same building) and the Regent, all on East Washington. Theaters beyond the downtown area included the Hi-Lander (the building still exists on Highland Avenue), the State (on Long Avenue, now the New Castle Playhouse), the Crescent (at the corner of Liberty and Madison avenues in Mahoningtown) and even the auditorium of the Scottish Rite Cathedral.
In Union Township, the Super Castle (where Walmart is today) and the Skyline (behind the Parkstown Restaurant) held sway with drive-in aficionados.
Each had a personality nowhere to be found in today’s generic multiplexes.
Take, for instance, the Victor.
Originally The Nixon when it opened in 1918, the Victor – located next to the former Lawrence Savings & Trust Building on the north side of East Washington Street, between Mill and East streets – had no restrooms.
That, Jack Oberleitner noted, was common in early 20th century nickelodeons, since programs generally lasted on about 30 minutes. Oberleitner owns a cinema consulting firm, Oberleitner & Associates, but his first job was as an usher at The Victor, which his father managed.
The Dome – which opened in 1907 and ended up as The Cinema after incarnations as the Paramount, the Vogue and the New Vogue – also lacked comfort facilities, Oberleitner said.
“That became a problem by the late 1920s and ’30s, when movies had become more like the full-length features we know today,” Oberleitner explained. “Now they needed restrooms. But these places were originally converted storerooms and they really didn’t have a place for restrooms. So both the Dome and the Victor put the restrooms in the same place: behind the screen. That was the only open space.”
Signs on either side of the screen were revised to say “Exit/Men” or “Exit/Women” to point out the restrooms – which wasn’t always a good thing.
“Routinely, some lady would be walking down the aisle and kids would start chanting, ‘We know where you’re going,’ ” Oberleitner said.
“Eventually, they renovated the Dome, but the Victor was like that until the day it closed. So when the Penn Theater came along in the late ’20s and had restrooms in the lobby, and they were more than makeshift, that was a big deal.”
Oberleitner said that the Victor never had a concession stand, either, until the 1950s. Its auditorium had the shape of a “squared off pork chop,” he added, with one section of seats having 10 to 12 more rows than the other.
The Victor closed in 1951 for seven years before reopening with a concession stand and double- and triple-features of second-run films.
“You could go there to see three science fiction pictures or three westerns for 50 cents for adults and a quarter for kids,” Oberleitner said. “It had the cheapest popcorn in town, a dime. Everybody else’s was 15 cents.”
David Victor – who had purchased the Nixon and renamed it for himself – ran the theater from about 1930 to 1947. During that time, he also was running movies at the Scottish Rite Cathedral.
When the Victor finally went dark in the early 1960s, downtown New Castle suddenly was a little less bright as well.
“It had a three-sided marquee with hundreds of tiny bulbs,” Oberleitner recalled. “It was a beautiful nighttime feature on New Castle’s main shopping street.”
(Tomorrow: Get your tickets for a visit to the State Theater)