New Castle News

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July 12, 2014

Preserved seats

Paralegal finds historical chair linked to Warner Bros. theater

NEW CASTLE — It took a researcher with years of experience to solve a local historical mystery.

Betty DiRisio, a volunteer for the Lawrence County Historical Society, discovered a forgotten chair in a society storeroom and linked it to the ones used by the Warner Brothers in their first theater on Mill Street.

“I’m a researcher. It’s in my blood. It’s what I do,” said DiRisio, a former paralegal.

As a local historian, DeRisio knew that the Warner Brothers had borrowed chairs from a local funeral home for movie showings at their theater, which is in the process of being restored. But no one knew the name of the funeral home, or what had happened to the chairs.

Little did they suspect that the chairs were right there in the historical society mansion on North Jefferson Street.

One day, while helping historical society board member Bob Waddington clean out a crowded, third-floor storeroom, DiRisio noticed two dusty chairs against a back wall. She picked one up and wondered aloud why they were there.

“I laughed and put it back and said wouldn’t it be unbelievable if this were one of the chairs from the theater,” she said. She noticed the name “Offutt” printed on the back. That was May 19.

Waddington didn’t know where they were from, but said they had been there as long as he could remember. He also  recognized “Offutt” as the name of a funeral home that once had been on Mercer Street.

Intrigued, DiRisio did a search on the name and found a New Castle News article dated 1975 or 1976 in which local historian and longtime New Castle News editor Bart Richards wrote that the Offutt Funeral Home had supplied chairs to the Warner Brothers.

But she knew a newspaper article from the 1970s wasn’t enough. She needed a higher standard of proof, some corroborating evidence because a reporter in the 1970s had no direct link with the funeral home.

Then, on May 21, while researching on her computer at home, she found the eyewitness account she needed: a 1956 New Castle News article in which Frank B. Offutt’s son recounted how his father had carried chairs from his funeral home to the Warner Brothers theater.

She could hardly contain herself, DiRisio recalled. “To me, this is a Smithsonian piece” she said.

 She hurried to the mansion the next day armed with beeswax to restore moisture to the old wooden chair. A search of the building turned up two more chairs, but a fourth had probably been discarded, DiRisio said.

Warner Film Center President Jack Kearns, whose group is restoring the historic theater, told her the chair’s discovery was an “Aha!” moment for the group, which is borrowing it to make reproductions for the project.

The funeral home, which closed in 1965, had occupied several locations in New Castle. It opened in 1890 at 77 E. Washington St., but by 1902 had moved to the corner of East Washington and Croton Avenue, where Infocision stands today. It then moved to the northeast corner of Mercer and Falls Avenues in 1907 and finally, to 211 N. Mercer St. in 1925.

DiRisio said that the lost-and-found information is typical of historical societies. “Somebody at some point knew” the connection between the chairs and the theater, she said, but the information was lost when they passed on.

For now, the chairs are not on display, although they may be in the future.

A Laurel High School graduate who lives in Slippery Rock Township, DiRisio resided in Washington, D.C., from 1973 to 2001, working for the Department of the Navy and the U.S. Justice Department on tort litigation regarding the effects of second-hand smoke. She returned to this area and in 2009 began volunteering for the historical society when her sister-in-law, Anita Trepicone Heichel, enlisted her help in finding information on the former Margaret Henry Orphanage in New Castle.

DiRisio said the society is in need of volunteers and asks anyone interested to call the society at (724) 658-4022.

(Email: grzebieniak@ncnewsonline.com)

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