NEW CASTLE —
Picture yourself as a teenager, popping in a wad of gum as you enter a movie theater in New Castle.
About halfway through the film, the gum becomes stale and you have nowhere to put it. So you pop it out and stick it underneath your chair.
Like clockwork, a thin, bespectacled man strides purposefully down the aisle, whispers, “no, no, no,” and provides a piece of paper in which to deposit said wad of gum — which is given up without incident.
And on his way back up the aisle, the man reminds some other young theater-goers to get their feet off the back of the chair in front of them. With no hesitation or back-talk, the youngsters comply.
If you spent any time in New Castle theaters from 1954 to 1993, you probably are nodding your head right about now.
That had to be Leo Mickey.
“I ran a pretty tight ship,” said the longtime New Castle theater manager, now 83. “I treated everyone with respect when they came to the theater and I expected them to treat the theater with respect in return.”
Mickey, who oversaw seven local theaters during an illustrious career, literally seemed to be everywhere at once — if you were at the Hi-Lander, he was there; if you were at the downtown Cinema, he was there as well.
“People used to tell me there had to be more than one of me, because whenever they went to a movie, no matter where it was, they saw me. I would go from place to place. I liked to have a hand in what was going on because, ultimately, I was responsible for what happened,” he said.
“I did what I had to do to make the experience a good one for our customers. If we were short a ticket-taker, I took tickets. If we had a rush at the concession stand, I sold popcorn. If we had a problem in the projection room, I headed there. But I always had an eye on the theater itself.”
Mickey kept movie-goers on the straight and narrow during his 39 years as manager at local theaters. But his businesslike exterior belied a man who had a heart of gold and loved to make people happy — especially the children — for whom he would host kiddie matinees and parties on a regular basis. Now, 20 years after he called it quits in the local theater business, “Mister Movie,” as Mickey was known, remains one of the city’s treasures.
THE START OF IT ALL
Mickey’s career working in cinema started in 1948, as an assistant at a Warner Brothers Theater in his hometown of Ambridge. In October 1954, at age of 24, Mickey was hired by Associated Theaters of Pittsburgh to manage the popular and historic Penn Theater in downtown New Castle. The theater was located on North Mercer Street, where the Huntington Bank drive-thru now does business.
Seven months after arriving in New Castle, Mickey married Loretta, his wife of 58 years.
Loretta learned quickly that she would have to share her husband with the theater, where he relished making each trip an unforgettable one for its patrons.
Wednesday at the Penn was women’s day, where all seats for the afternoon matinee were 50 cents. Mickey would bring in coffee and doughnuts and cases of pop to treat his theater-goers.
Saturday mornings, and sometimes Sunday afternoons, were kiddie matinee days, where Mickey would show 17 cartoons, along with an offbeat feature film that would delight the children.
Mickey would get prizes from local merchants or buy them himself and personally sit on the tiny stage and play games with the kids. Box tops from popcorn often would yield free passes so that the kids’ next trip would be taken care of.
Mickey would buy Hershey bars in boxes of 144 and give them out with tickets purchased in advance. Sellouts were common with Mickey orchestrating the activities.
“It was so much fun,” Mickey said. “The kids enjoyed it and I enjoyed it.
“Sometimes parents of the older kids dropped them off and ran errands, but a lot of them stayed and joined in. It was kids’ day, but it was family day, too.”
Mickey also enjoyed putting on Halloween parties for the children in which costumes were encouraged and once again, prizes given out. And, of course, a spooky movie was shown.
“One year, I had skeletons rigged up in the ceiling to ride past the crowd during a scary part of the movie,” he said, adding with a laugh, “that met with mixed reviews.”
Obviously, Associated Theaters enjoyed the sellout crowds that Mickey managed to entice with his promotions.
Mickey’s crowd-pleasing activities were so popular, though, that they once got him arrested for bringing too many people in.
Mickey was showing the popular “White Christmas,” starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, at the Penn, which had 1,300 seats in its heyday.
“We had a deal locally with a business that was selling some tickets,” he said. “I didn’t realize how many they had sold, so I kept selling and just before the movie started, I realized I had more people than seats. We had some people standing up against the wall and some more sitting in the aisles.
“I was nervous, but there wasn’t a whole lot I could do at that point. Who do you ask to leave?”
Turns out someone made a call to New Castle fire chief John Oberleitner. Oberleitner, the one-time manager of the Victor Theater in New Castle, had no choice but to cite Mickey — who remains sensitive about the issue to this day.
John Oberleitner is the father of Jack Oberleitner, who himself carved out an illustrious career in the movie business, taking his first job as an usher at the Victor and going on to start a theater chain and a theatrical consulting firm. Jack recently has returned to New Castle as a member of the board of directors of a group attempting to recreate the local Warner Brothers theater.
Mickey says he understood what John Oberleitner had to do and still speaks to Jack Oberleitner on a regular basis.
“I was always very careful with things like that,” he said. “It was just a one-time mix-up and I was very embarrassed. I certainly don’t want to remembered for that.”
That should be no problem for Mickey, who was so well-known that he was approached on more than one occasion to run for political office.
“Even now, I go out to eat with my wife and someone will stop me and say, ‘Hey, Mick, you should have run for mayor. You’d have won by a landslide,’ ” he says with a chuckle.
Mickey often worked six to seven days a week, reporting in the late-morning and returning home at midnight or later, with a break for dinner to spend time with Loretta and their children.
“We didn’t see him a lot,” Loretta said. “He was totally dedicated to that job. He was good at what he did.”
MOURNING THE PENN
When the Penn closed in 1968, it was a sad day for Mickey, who had grown to love the heavily-adorned, red-and-gold theater that had become a showplace for New Castle.
“I loved all the theaters I managed, but there was something about the Penn,” he said. “It just had such an air about it.”
Mickey said it was an even tougher day when the Penn was torn down.
“It didn’t want to go,” he said. “The wrecking ball hit it and the ball just bounced back. People cheered, not wanting it to give in to the wrecking ball. That old girl had a lot of spunk in her.”
Mickey also managed the downtown Cinema, the State Theater, the Hi-Lander, Skyline Drive-in and, eventually, the Westgate multiplex. When the final movie-goer filed out and all the popcorn had been swept from the aisles, Mickey turned his attention to bookkeeping.
And during his free time? For years, he was in charge of the annual Christmas parade put on by the Downtown Merchants Association.
“I was pretty organized,” he said. “I had to be with everything going on at once.”
Mickey saw many changes during his days as the man in charge.
“We used 35-millimeter films for many years and each machine only held 20 minutes of film. We had to have two operators in the booth to make sure that we were able to pull off the switch without people noticing for the most part.”
The problems were few and far between under Mickey’s watchful eye. Local cinemas needed no security with him as a visible presence.
“I wanted people to have fun, that was the bottom line,” he said. “If I heard kids talking, I would ask them to whisper and the instances when they wouldn’t mind me were rare.
“But every once in awhile, someone would test me. A few times, I would haul someone out into the lobby and tell them, ‘One of us is going to have to leave right now — and I can tell you that I’ve been here a lot longer than you have.’ ”
Mickey occasionally gets a confession when he runs into some of his former patrons.
“I can’t believe the times I am recognized, even now,” he said. “All those years at the theaters, I didn’t even think anyone noticed me, I was just there doing my job.
“Just the other day, I ran into some guys, who said, ‘Hey, Mick,’ and started telling stories about the days when they used to go to the theater. One of them admitted that he found a way to sneak in when I was busy. He told me that he knew if he ever ran into me, he was going to confess.
“We had a good laugh,” he added, “because I don’t think too many people got one over on me.”
Mickey ended his New Castle theater managerial career at the Westgate multiplex in 1993.
“The multiplex was different, but I enjoyed it,” he said. “It was progress and it was inevitable that it had to happen.”
These days, Mickey is enjoying his retirement in his North Hill home, which he and Loretta purchased shortly after they were married.
He says he never really had a chance to watch the movies at the cinemas he managed, so he watches them now when the urge hits. He is a walking encyclopedia on movie history and actors and remembers most details of his days in the theaters as if it were yesterday.
“Little did I know when I came to New Castle that I would never leave,” he said. “I had a good run.”
(Email: kcubbal @ncnewsonline.com).
NEW CASTLE —
Picture yourself as a teenager, popping in a wad of gum as you enter a movie theater in New Castle.
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