New Castle News

July 2, 2013

Movie Memories, Part 2: Usher at The Dome recalls life tending to the big, small screens

David Burcham
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — As an adolescent in the 1930s, New Castle’s Charles Chirozzi had a role in the movie business.

Then, after serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Chirozzi returned home and landed a job in the television industry, where he starred for four decades.

Although Chirozzi didn’t perform on either the big or small screen, he made it possible for multitudes of Lawrence countians to watch those who did.

Chirozzi, now 91, was an usher at The Dome — one the city’s earliest theaters. His memories of the experience remain vivid.

He was 8 when he first set foot inside the theater just days after his stepfather, Tom Masters, purchased the property.

“It was so musty that I wanted to get out fast,” he said.



LIFE AT THE DOME

Fortunately for Charles, the stale odor improved because he and older brother, Dom, became fixtures at the theater. Wearing an oxford gray uniform and carrying his trusty flashlight, Charles handled his responsibilities with pride. Weekend shifts began at 9 a.m. with cleaning the theater in preparation for the first show. They stayed until the final screening ended around 11 p.m.

After taking tickets in the lobby, Charles would take his post and keep an eye open for anyone trying to sneak in through the back door.

After New Castle High football games on Friday nights, Charles said The Dome would fill with students who would enter in unison to celebrate a victory by doing a snake dance through the aisles. Most would then exit the theater, but some would take a seat to watch the rest of the movie.

The Penn Theater was known for showing first-run movies, but charged an admission price of 50 cents. Charles said many people chose to wait two weeks to see the same films for half the cost at The Dome.

The theater was remodeled in the late 1930s with Art Deco styling. The architect was M. Abraham, and the original capacity was 702. The Chirozzi brothers were needed to help install the new seats.

“We worked through the night and made $20,” Charles said. “That was a lot of money back then.”

After the remodeling, including a new marquee, the theater had a fresh look, but the ushers wore the same gray uniforms. The theater reopened with the film “The Lost Jungle” starring Clyde Beatty.

Amazingly, Beatty was in New Castle at the time, starring in his live wild animal show. The famed lion tamer and animal trainer made a personal appearance at The Dome.

Charles said special decorations were brought to enhance the showing. Plants were placed inside and outside the theater to simulate a jungle atmosphere. There was a live chimpanzee in a cage in the lobby and it was Charles’ assignment to keep customers away from the cage. “We heard the chimp would bite if you got too close,” he said.

“It was quite a sight.”

Patrons would return to The Dome for weekly serials, like space hero Flash Gordon.

Charles said on occasion, film would break and the screen would go blank, causing kids to stomp their feet and voice their displeasure.

Charles said there was a secret door that connected the theater to a candy and smokeshop next door and only the theater employees were aware of it.

Theater-goers purchased popcorn and peanuts behind the building that now houses the New Castle Beauty School and bring them into the adjacent theater.



LATER YEARS

The Dome was built in 1907 and was 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. The theater closed its doors in 1997 and was torn down in 2007, exactly 100 years after it opened in the silent film era.

“I was heartsick when they tore it down,” Charles said. “I couldn’t believe how small the empty lot looked. The theater had always seemed so much bigger.”

After working for a short time at the Mesta Plant on Moravia Street, the former usher became a television repairman for RCA Factory Service. He still has a 1948 Motorola, one of the country’s most popular models of the 1940s.

“People thought he was crazy when he took that job,” said Charles’ daughter, Ruth Horner. “They didn’t think television would last too long.”

(Email: d_burcham@ncnewsonline.com)