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June 11, 2012

Inactivity of Warner project may have signed its death warrant

NEW CASTLE — A different future had been anticipated for downtown New Castle.

“Things should have been done differently,”  said Jerry Kern, who heads Cascade Theater Preservation Group and Warner Film Center at the Cascade Theater, a non-profit corporation that planned the development.

“We were never as active as we should have been.”

A movie buff, Kern knew that Harry, Albert, and Sam Warner, who then lived in Youngstown, Ohio, entered the entertainment world when they rented a copy of the 1903 western “The Great Train Robbery.” Only 12 minutes long, this black and white silent film was an instant sensation.

The brothers showed the film at fairs and in store fronts of mill towns across western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, before deciding life on the road was not for them. They decided to find a permanent theater. Their father, the story goes, advised them to open in the town were they made the most money.

On Feb. 7,1907, they opened their first permanent theater — a nickelodeon — on the second floor of the Neisner building on Mill Street, using folding chairs borrowed from a local funeral home. Ultimately, they operated a multi-plex of three theaters at the site, two nickelodeons and a vaudeville-style theater.

In time, however, they learned the money in the movie business was to be made in distributing, not showing films. They sold their theater to a brother-in-law and relocated to Pittsburgh. Later, they focused on making the films, relocating to the southwest where weather rarely changed. Younger brother Jack Warner went on to make and market movies in Hollywood.

But as the brothers prospered, New Castle went into decline and the Neisner building deteriorated.

In 1991, Harry Warner's granddaughter, Cass, published a book — “Hollywood Be Thy Name” — which told the story of the movie makers. The following year, Cass Warner appeared at a book-signing in Pittsburgh. Kern, his copy of the tome in hand, stood in line for an autograph. When his turn came, he opened the book, showing Cass a photo of the crumbling facade of an old brick building.

"Should I know this?" she asked.

He closed the book. Its dust cover revealed her uncles standing at their first box office under an identical archway.

“This is that building today,” he told her. He also said the building was slated to be demolished and asked her to help preserve it.

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