New Castle News

May 24, 2013

Movie Memories, Part 5: Once upon a time, the city was filled with nickelodeons

Dan Irwin
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — At least three of New Castle’s earliest movie theaters were ravaged by fire.

But if you were a patron in those days, smoke might not have been the only smell to send you running into the streets. A fog of perfume might have done the trick as well.

During the first couple decades of the 20th century, the city’s movie theaters were more aptly termed “nickelodeons.”

“People would come in, and the entire program would only last about 20 minutes,” explained Jack Oberleitner, a New Castle native and owner of Oberleitner & Associates, a cinema consulting firm. “So people would come in, pay a nickel – maybe on Saturday night it went up to a dime – and they would watch anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes of film.

“Then management would do whatever they could to get the people out.”

Why? So they could sell the seats again for the next show.

“At the Cascade (the Mill Street theater that was the Warner Brothers’ first), they had Jack Warner, who was the youngest, go up front and start to sing – which he couldn’t do,” Oberleitner said.

“In The Dome (on East Washington Street), the manager would start spraying perfume. At the Nixon (later the Victor, also in East Washington), they were renowned for telling the projectionist to start speeding up the film so people would get disgusted and walk out. Then they could sell more nickel tickets.”



EARLY SHOWS

While longtime New Castle residents no doubt have pleasant memories of such former downtown theaters as the Penn, the Victor or the Vogue, few, if any, remain to recall the heyday of early 1900s movie houses like the Cascade, the Coliseum, the Opera House or the Dome.

Enter Jack Oberleitner.

Oberleitner’s been in the movie business since 1959, when he took his first job as an usher in the now-defunct Victor Theater, which his father managed. Though he’ll soon be retiring from his consulting firm, he’s joined the board of directors of a group attempting to recreate the Warner Brothers’ theater, even making a $100,000 donation to the effort.

But it was that first job at the Victor that enabled Oberleitner to begin acquiring a wealth of knowledge about New Castle movie theaters that had come and gone before most of today’s residents were born.

“A lot of the people who owned and managed the theaters were people that (my father) knew, so it was almost a social event whenever we would go to a movie,” Oberleitner said. “It was obligatory at that time that you always had to stop and talk with the manager, compare notes and ‘How’s business?’ and, of course, business was always lousy. You could have a full house and they’d still say it was lousy.

“In the late ’50s, there were still a lot of old projectionists and stage hands that had been around in the glory days of the ’20s and ’30s. And I routinely used to go to them and pick their brains about what it was like to work at the Coliseum Theater, or the Opera House or the Capitol Theater, which were pretty big deals at one point.”

Indeed, Oberleitner recalled, in the days before Internet, television and even radio, movies themselves were a sensation.

“Almost every Saturday there was a parade of people that used to start at The Diamond and walk up one side of Washington Street and visit all the theaters, going up to the Vogue Theater looking at the pictures of the posters and such,” he said. “At any given time, there were probably a couple thousand people making the circuit.”



ORIGINAL SCREEN SCENE

Given that the Cascade is part of the foundation of the Warner Brothers empire — and that efforts to restore it have been afloat for some time now — it undoubtedly is the most talked-about theater that none of those having the conversation ever saw.

The Warners actually began showing movies in the back room of a funeral parlor further along East Washington Street. At various points it was called the Bijou  and the Pioneer. When other nickelodeons began to open along East Washington Street, the Warners opened the Cascade Movie Palace on Mill Street in 1907, a few doors down from the funeral home. The theater lasted a few years before the Warners moved on to other interests.

However, Oberleitner notes, New Castle did have other theaters operating at the same time, such as the Acme — which, ironically, was right next door to the Warner Brothers. Also nearby were the Coliseum, the Opera House and others.

“The Acme was like a penny arcade that had a little room to show seven-, eight-, nine-minute long featurettes,” Oberleitner said. “The Coliseum was more or less across the street on Mill Street. It actually had a couple thousand seats. It was built like an indoor arena, thereby the name.

“It was an open floor area that had bleacher-style seats. They put on a circus, they put on polo matches, vaudeville acts, they showed movies – anything they could get to draw in a crowd. At one point, they even flooded the place and had water polo.”

One block west on South Mercer Street, the Opera House opened circa 1900 in a remodeled, second-floor public meeting room. A wooden structure, it eventually was damaged by fire, Oberleitner said, after which a full-fledged movie palace – The Capitol – opened on the same site in the early 1920s. It boasted between 1,200 and 1,500 seats, Oberleitner said, and presented a combination of films and vaudeville acts. The latter included an appearance by a then-relative unknown by the name of Bob Hope.

“It was a really lavish theater, very pretty – sort of a smaller version of The Cathedral,” Oberleitner said of the Capitol, which like the Opera House, closed for good following a devastating blaze.

“And an interesting bit of trivia,” Oberleitner notes, “was that the movie they were advertising as ‘coming next’ on their marquee was ‘Fireman Save My Child.’ ”

Oberleitner believes that the Moravia (1903 to 1906) may have been New Castle’s first theater.

“(It) was one of many makeshift nickelodeons that sprang up everywhere around the turn of the century,” he said. “As told to me by a pioneer projectionist, the Moravia Theatre was constructed out of sheet metal which made the building very vulnerable to both heat and cold. The auditorium consisted of a single crank projector and a screen of sorts on the opposite wall.

“Barely more than a sideshow attraction, the projectionist would shuffle through a few travelogues or novelty reels, each lasting five to seven minutes.”



NAME CHANGES

Some other early New Castle theaters eventually morphed into entities that some folks today may still remember.

The Park, for instance, opened on East Washington Street near The Diamond around the turn of the 20th century, “a small, live theater with about 500 seats,” Oberleitner said. It was remodeled and renamed The Regent in the mid- to late 1920s, according to cinematreasures.org, and showed mostly “B westerns and pictures by companies like Republic and Monogram,” Oberleitner said.

At the other end of East Washington was The Dome, built in 1907. It transformed multiple times, becoming the Paramount in the 1940s, the Vogue in the 1950s and the New Vogue in the 1960s. It was then closed for several years before it was remodeled and reopened in 1968 as The Cinema.

Other early movie theaters about which little information exists include The Baltimore Strand, on Long Avenue; The Theatorium at 114 E. Washington; The Star at 120 E. Washington; and Dreamland, 15 S. Mill St.

(Email: d_irwin@ncnewsonline.com)