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May 24, 2013

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

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.”

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