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This article was contributed to the Germantown Historical Society's member publication, "The Germantown Crier".  It is being printed here for enjoyment purposes only.  A copy of the published article (with all photos) can be purchased from the Germantown Historical Society.  Enjoy!

 

THE THEATRES

 OF

GERMANTOWN

 

by

Dennis McGlinchey

 

Although there are no theatres in Germantown today, the area was a theatre mecca in the early 20th century.  With the exception of Center City, no other section of the city of Philadelphia had more theatres than Germantown.  These theatres served as venues for vaudeville shows, stage and stock productions, live concert performances and full feature films.  In the pre-television and video world, theatre-going was a primary source of entertainment for the masses.  And, oh did they ever patronize the theatres!  It is said that by 1914, 15,000 to 20,000 persons a day were attending one of Germantown’s theatres (1).  Given those numbers, it is no wonder Germantown had so many of them!  With the admission charge being a mere 5 to 10 cents, this was a very affordable means of entertainment.

All told, Germantown had 14 theatres – the Germantown (later the Vernon), the Orpheum, the Vernon Palace, the Colonial, the Tulpehocken (later the Rialto), the Manheim (later the Lyric and New Lyric), the Solo, the Walton, The Wayne Avenue Playhouse, the Stenton, the Allen, the Coulter, the Bandbox and the Chelten.  Then, when you consider the theatres in close proximity to Germantown along the “cobblestone corridor” of Germantown Avenue, namely the Cayuga in Nicetown, the Pelham (later the Upsal) and the Sedgwick in Mt. Airy, as well as the Belvedere (later the Hill) and Eric Twin in Chestnut Hill, that is a lot of theatres serving the people of Germantown and the surrounding environs!As amazing as this number may seem, there were to be even more.  It is fact that there were five more theatres planned which, for various reasons, were never built.  (1)

How could Germantown support so many theatres?   At the turn of the century and well beyond, the population of Germantown was growing by leaps and bounds.  According to the 1900 U.S. census, there were 64,655 residents in the 22nd Ward, an area which encompasses Germantown, Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill.  This grew to 70,865 in 1910, to 85,382 in 1920, to 104,865 in 1930, 108,083 in 1940 and to 114,197 in 1950.  But, beyond this remarkable residential growth of the area, the bustling commercial district that centered around the intersection of Germantown and Chelten Avenues made Germantown a destination of sorts.  That commercial district, while still bustling today, was at its peak level in the 1910s through to the 1950s.  People flocked to the department stores and specialty stores, such as C.A Rowell, Allen’s, Cherry’s, Robert Hall, Sears, Penneys, Kresge’s, Woolworth’s, as well as dined in the many eateries of the area, such as Horn & Hardart, Linton’s, Imhoff’s, Foloticco’s, The Boswell House, Montagna’s, etc.  Just so much to see and do, so it was only natural for people to see a show or movie while down “the Avenue,” as the commercial district was affectionately known.   The existence of the theatres truly made this area Germantown’s cultural district, as well as its business and commercial district.  Germantown was truly a self-contained city within a city!

The theatres of Germantown were all unique in their own way.  The theatres in the commercial district tended to be large and opulent.  These theatres, namely the Orpheum, the Germantown (Vernon), the Colonial and the Tulpehocken (Rialto), were multiuse theatres for live shows and films, alternating between these uses and often combining both in a single program.  In their heyday, these were very busy venues.  Another common characteristic of these theatres is that they all had fine organs to entertain at intermission and between shows, as well as to provide a musical background for silent films.  The theatres in the outlying neighborhood tended to be smaller, less elegant and elaborate, with little or no stage and their primary purpose was as movie houses.  These theatres, such as the Walton, the New Lyric and the Chelten, mostly served the immediate neighborhood where they were located and were quite busy.  With so many theatres within walking distance or just a short hop on the Rte 52 (Chelten Avenue), Rte 23 (Germantown Avenue) or Rte 53 (Wayne Avenue) trolleys, there was no shortage of entertainment opportunities!

While the glory days of the movie palaces have long passed, it would be hard to find anyone who ever came upon those architectural gems being nonchalant about them.  While most may be gone physically, those who knew these theatres typically regret their demise and are nostalgic towards them.  This is why there is such an earnest and united effort to save those few movie palaces that do remain.  While some of Germantown’s theatres would certainly qualify in their day as a “movie palace,” most would not fit that description, then or now.  But, they were palaces to us, and to those who went before us, who knew these theatres and spent so many a memorable and enjoyable hour within their intimate confines.  So, let’s now take a reflective journey back to these special places that were so much a part of our lives and were so much a part of Germantown of yesteryear.

 

GERMANTOWN THEATRE  /  VERNON THEATRE

The Germantown Theatre, later renamed the Vernon Theatre, was built in 1910 and located at 5508 Germantown Avenue, just north of School House Lane (next to the historic National Bank of Germantown building, now a Citizens Bank).  This was the first “formal” theatre built in Germantown, spurred by the residential and commercial growth of the area.  This 1,800 seat theatre was designed in the baroque style by the architectural firm, Druckenmiller & Stackhouse, and built at a cost of $50,000, quite a sum of money at that time.  Upon completion, it was dubbed, “The Pride of Germantown”.   (1)

The Germantown was designed to be a multi-use theatre for stage shows, stock productions and films.  This was an elaborately-detailed theatre that had a muraled ceiling, a deep stage and fine appointments throughout.  However, as grand as it was, it was on a lesser scale when compared to the Orpheum and the Colonial, which were built a couple of years later.  As was the custom of the time, it had a fine pipe organ, which was replaced in 1918 with an even finer $27,000 Wurlitzer pipe organ, and was located in the center of the orchestra pit.  (1) 

The handsome exterior terra cotta archway façade was duplicated on the inside proscenium, the archway around the stage.  The original box office was a freestanding, six-sided dwelling located just outside the main doors.  At some point in the 1930s, the theatre was remodeled and re-opened as the Vernon Theatre.  The seating capacity was reduced from 1,800 seats to 1,168 seats.  In addition, a triangular marquee was added and the exterior facade was altered to the point where it barely resembled the original design.  By the time of the remodeling, the theatre was primarily used as a second to final run movie house.  In 1951, the theatre was purchased and closed, with the original intent to convert it into office and retail space.  Today, the site is a vacant lot. 

 

The Vernon Theatre can be partially seen behind the gentleman in this photo. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CAYUGA THEATRE / AARDVARK THEATRE

The Cayuga Theatre was built in 1911 and located at Germantown Avenue and Cayuga Street in Nicetown, just two blocks south of the Lower Germantown boundary.  Designed by the architectural firm, Neubauer & Supowitz, this 460 seat theatre was built as a venue for silent movies.  Aside from it being triangular in shape, this was a rather undistinguished theatre.  With a repainting in 1926, a vertical sign with a light bulb border was added with the “Cayuga” name.  Throughout its life as the Cayuga Theatre, it served as a second run, neighborhood movie theatre. 

In the early 1950s, it was re-named the Aardvark Theatre.  The re-naming was for no other reason but to give it a competitive edge by being the first alphabetical listing in the newspaper’s neighborhood movie directory.  With the new name, a new policy of showing independent and exotic films was adopted.  This effort was unsuccessful and short-lived.  The theatre closed for good in 1955.  According to former Germantown resident, Jim McGlinn, upon closing, the building was sold and converted into a church.  It was ultimately town down due to expressway expansion.  Today, it is a beautifully landscaped pocket park for the Nicetown community. 

 

ORPHEUM THEATRE

The Orpheum Theatre, located at 42 W. Chelten Avenue, was built in 1912.  There are no cost figures available, but this was a true architectural gem, inside and out.  Designed by architect John D. Allen, in association with the architectural firm Sauer & Hahn, this was the most handsome, elegant and opulent of all of Germantown’s theatres - truly, the “grande dame” of Germantown’s theatres.

Records indicate that the Orpheum had a seating capacity of 1,706, but early press clippings from the collection of the Germantown Historical Society indicate it had a seating capacity of over 2,000 when it opened.  Built in 1913 as a vaudeville house, it was also used for stage productions, concerts and films.  As a vaudeville venue, it was on the touring circuit of the renowned B.F. Keith’s Vaudeville troupe (aka Keith’s Vaudeville).  It had a deep stage, large orchestra pit, a grand organ, 10 dressing rooms behind the stage, a balcony, a second balcony and individual boxes on both sides of the auditorium.  

The exterior of this 3-story architectural gem was finely detailed in brick, stone and terra cotta.  The auditorium was elaborately decorated with a beautiful muraled ceiling.  The elegant main lobby was chandeliered and gilded, with marble and brass throughout.  It had two grand staircases on either side of the main lobby that lead to the second floor lobby.  This second, grand lobby was located just outside the balcony area and had a large picture window that overlooked bustling Chelten Avenue.  There was a second set of stairs that led up to the smaller second balcony.   

As with the Germantown, the Colonial and the Rialto, stage performances dominated the daily program at the Orpheum in the early years, which ran from around noon to late evening, seven days a week.  But, films, called photoplays in the early years, were definitely a part of the program and, by the 1930s, dominated the bill in all of these theatres.  The death knell for vaudeville, which was so important in the early success of the Orpheum and the other mentioned theatres, sounded around the late 1920s and all but disappeared by the 1950s.

However, through the 1930s and 1940s, the Orpheum’s stage was still being used for stage productions and live performances, mainly big band and other such concerts.  By the 1950s, the stage was rarely used and motion pictures were the primary entertainment bill at the Orpheum, which specialized is first and second run films.  Though unconfirmed, the general belief of several familiar with this theatre, and as agreed by this writer, is that the Orpheum had a rather large marquee, which would have been added later, yet the date is not known.  This addition significantly altered the exterior appearance from the original design.  Vince Young, a local and well-versed theatre aficionado, the Orpheum was closed in 1958 on the very day that the Mastbaum Theatre, located at Market Street and 20th Street, the most elaborate, elegant and majestic theatre ever built in Philadelphia, closed its doors forever.  But, unlike the Mastbaum, the Orpheum reopened in a few weeks, possibly due to neighborhood protest over the closing.  Former Germantowner Sally Moore Quinlan recalls John F. Kennedy making a campaign stop in Germantown in his run for the presidency in 1960.  The Orpheum served as a backdrop as he delivered his campaign speech for the throngs that assembled.  Through the 1960s, the Orpheum was essentially a second, third and even subsequent run movie house.  As grand as it was, it was very costly to maintain.  With reduced attendance that essentially began as the popularity of television took hold, the Orpheum closed its doors forever in 1967.  It was immediately demolished and replaced by retail stores. 

While the Orpheum was not quite on the same majestic level as Center City’s Mastbaum Theatre, Fox Theatre, Stanley Theatre or Erlanger Theatre, few neighborhood theatres could match its elegance and opulence.  Of the many people I spoke with who knew and patronized this theatre, the overwhelming consensus is that it was an absolutely magnificent theatre, a feeling shared by this writer.  Though by the 1960s, the Orpheum was in a tired state, the grandeur still shone through. 

While most of Germantown’s theatres were gone before my time, this is a theatre I knew.  I went here for many a matinee with my friends to watch Godzilla, Frankenstein or some other matinee feature.  But, I also recall seeing second run films of the day and subsequent run films such as Ben-Hur and the tear-jerking Imitation of Life here.  While I may have been too young to fully appreciate the majesty that was the Orpheum Theatre, I was well aware that it was a special place, and it was one that I never forgot.

The Orpheum was truly the finest of Germantown’s theatres.

 

VERNON PALACE THEATRE

The Vernon Palace Theatre, formerly located at 5704 Germantown Avenue, is one none of us would have known as it was only in existence from 1912 to 1914.  Designed by John D. Allen, who also designed the majestic Orpheum Theatre, all indications are that this was a small, nondescript silent movie theatre.  Located just a few feet from Vernon Park and just a hundred or so feet from the intersection of Germantown and Chelten Avenues, almost nothing is known of this theatre or why it closed after such a short theatre life.  What is known, from press clippings in the collection of the Germantown Historical Society, is that it was purchased in 1913 by a Matthew Adam, a member of the Germantown Poor Board, with no mention of its intended use.  Today, there is a retail establishment that incorporates the sites of 5700 thru 5704 Germantown Avenues.

  

COLONIAL THEATRE

The Colonial Theatre, located at 5526 Germantown Avenue (west side of Germantown Avenue near Maplewood Avenue) was a large theatre built in 1913.  When it opened, it had a seating capacity of over 3,000, which was reduced to 2,552 with a remodeling in 1930.  Designed in a colonial style by architect, Thomas W. Lamb, this was an elegant and elaborate theatre built for, what was at the time, a staggering sum of $450,000.  A press clipping from its opening, found in the collection of the Germantown Historical Society, indicates, "it is built of the colonial style of architecture. The interior is of gold and white decorations with massive chandeliers suspended by large chains. The ceiling is embellished with mural decorations and contains a fine organ.” 

While this description does not fully describe the theatre in great detail, at $450,000 in 1913 dollars, suffice it to say this would have to have been a very opulent theatre.  This theatre had a deep stage, balcony and individual side boxes.  A uniqueness in this theatre design is in the use of inclines, or ramps, to get from one level to another, instead of a staircase.  In its early years, it was known as Nixon’s Colonial Theatre, the owner’s name added in order to distinguish this fine theatre from another theatre in the city with the same name.  As with the Orpheum and the Germantown, it was built as a vaudeville house, but also used for live shows, stage productions and films.  Another distinctive feature of this theatre was its very large roof-top sign, which could be seen along both sides of Germantown Avenue, to the north and to the south.  With its 1930 remodeling by architect John Eberson, the individual boxes were removed, new seats added, and air-conditioning installed.  These alterations reduced its seating capacity to 2,552. 

Upon re-opening, the Colonial mostly served as a first-run movie house, Germantown’s first, first-run movie house.  However, it was still used for an occasional stage production and live shows, mainly big band concerts and such.  The Colonial closed in 1960 and was demolished shortly thereafter.  Today, the site of the Colonial Theatre is a parking lot. 

Although larger theatres were planned for Germantown, they were not built and so the Colonial Theatre has the distinction of having been Germantown’s largest theatre, ever.  

Jerry Bowers recalls this theatre well, having grown up nearby on Maplewood Avenue.  Jerry recalls the admission price in the early 1950s to be a mere 10 cents for kids and 25 cents for folks 12 and over.  For another 5 cents, you could get a candy box of “Good and Plenty” or “Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy” and you were set for the afternoon or evening.  The show would begin with the National Anthem followed by a newsreel, a short cartoon, a weekly serial (Flash Gordon and Rocket Man were his personal favorites) and then the current double feature films.  Jerry also recalls the occasional Duncan or Cheerio Yo-Yo contests held on the theatre’s stage.  The winners would receive a cloth patch with a saying such as “Champion – Duncan Yo-Yo Contest” with the date.  Truly, a memorable theatre! 

   

TULPEHOCKEN THEATRE  /  RIALTO THEATRE

For most of its theatre lfe, this was known as the Rialto Theatre.  The Rialto Theatre was opened as the Tulpehocken Theatre in 1914 at 6153 Germantown Avenue (southeast corner of Germantown Avenue & Tulpehocken Street).  It was an 834 seat theatre built at a cost of $20,000.  It was re-named the Rialto in 1919 upon re-purchasing by another owner.  Despite its small size, it was built as a multi-purpose theatre for stage productions, live shows and films.  A plain, nondescript theatre when built, the Tulpehocken/Rialto had a modest marquee and a wide auditorium with no balcony.  In 1931, it was remodeled in the art deco style by renowned theatre designer, William H. Lee, who would later continue his work with other area theatres, including the Sedgwick in Mt. Airy and the Hill in Chestnut Hill.  Upon remodeling, this now-handsome theatre served mostly as a second, final and subsequent run movie house, with an occasional live show or concert.  As with many theatres of the time, this theatre adopted the popular double feature concept in the 1940s/1950s. 

The Rialto closed in 1960 and was sold and converted shortly thereafter into the New Bethel AME Church.  It serves in that capacity to this day.  With a recent remodeling, the building’s exterior bears no resemblance to its days when it was the Tulepehocken/Rialto Theatre, though it is very appealing and handsome in its current state.

Vince Young, a local film and movie house aficionado, recalls this theatre as being very “colorful”, with lots of pastel colors on the walls, curtains and ceiling.  This was probably the result of the art deco renovation by Williams H. Lee in the 1930s.  Vince recalls seeing the classic musical film Gigi here on its second or third run in 1959 or 1960.  Vince also indicated that the Rialto was operated at one time by the Stiefel family, who also operated the legendary Uptown Theatre on Broad Street in North Philadelphia.   Their son, Arnold Stiefel, became a Hollywood agent whose clients included Clint Eastwood.  He also served as producer for such films as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and About Last Night.

Being such a small theatre, it’s remarkable that the Rialto had such a long and diverse run, in view of the stiff competition from other local and downtown theatres for live productions, shows and films.  

  

MANHEIM THEATRE  /  LYRIC THEATRE  /  NEW LYRIC THEATRE

This theatre, located at 5123 Germantown Avenue, a mere five blocks south of the central Germantown business district of Germantown and Chelten Avenues, opened as the Manheim Theatre in 1914.  Though designed by John D. Allen, the designer of the lavish Orpheum Theatre, this brick-façade theatre was so unlike the Orpheum in its design.  A large 1,000 seat brick theatre, it was very nondescript and typical of the neighborhood theatres being built at the time.  Built as a silent movie house, it was opened with a small pipe organ to accompany such films.  The theatre did have a balcony, but no stage. 

When it was wired for sound in 1929, it was re-named the Lyric Theatre.  In 1935, extensive renovations were made and a new, bright marquee was added, with the Lyric name on all three sides.  But, with these renovations, it was informally reopened as the “New” Lyric Theatre, a name it formally became known by until its closing in 1971, even though it contrasted with the name on the marquee.  Upon closing, it remained vacant until it was destroyed by fire in 1975.  Today, a small shopping plaza is located on the grounds where the theatre once stood.    

The New Lyric Theatre outlasted most of Germantown’s theatres, with the exception of the Bandbox and the Walton Theatres.  As a personal note, there was a specialness to this theatre that became apparent to me in my research.  Of all the theatre remembrances received in my research for this article, this theatre seemed to trail only the majestic Orpheum and the trendy Bandbox in expressions of fondness and special memories.  Bob Gac, born and raised in Germantown, recalls that the New Lyric was “very plain and functional” and that “it was without a doubt the place to go as a kid for the Saturday matinees.  For 25 cents, you got to see an afternoon of cartoons, a serial adventure and horror classics”.  Former Germantowners Carol Hartopp Randall and Mary Lou Malagieri shared the same sentiments and both mentioned the futile attempts of the longtime manager, Mr. Lewis, to control the kids’ noise level and popcorn throwing.  Mary Lou further recalls a popular prank of “bringing fireflies into the theatre in jars and releasing them as soon as the lights went down”.  Another former Germantowner, Jim Smith, recalls the lucky numbers and hula-hoop contests they held there periodically.  Jim, Carol, Sheila Roos and others fondly remember The Little Dog House, a steak shop right next to the theatre well known for their steaks and hoagies, as a popular stop after the movies (seen in the picture above). 

Truly, the New Lyric Theatre was a neighborhood theatre that had a major impact in the lives and hearts of many.

 

PELHAM THEATRE  / UPSAL THEATRE

This Mt. Airy theatre, originally named the Pelham Theatre, was opened in 1914.  Located at 6531 Germantown Avenue, this 470 seat brick façade, terra cotta detailed theatre was designed by Brozner & Wood specifically as a movie house.  Never hugely successful because of its small size and stiff local competition, it closed four times by the time of its 1933 renovation, when it was renamed the Upsal Theatre.  It then served as a last-run neighborhood movie house for East Mt. Airy until 1951, when it was closed for good. 

The building was sold to the Police Athletic Boys Club, possibly intended for program-related use but ultimately converted over to retail use.  At some point, it was converted into a church, which was the use until recently when it closed and is now being renovated for use as a catering hall.    

Today, the building still somewhat resembles the theatre in its heyday.  The marquee is still in place, but some of the ornate detailing is now gone and the entranceways have been re-designed.  But, passing this building today, you are completely aware that it was a theatre at one time.   

 

BELVEDERE THEATRE  /  HILL THEATRE

This Chestnut Hill theatre, which opened in 1916 as the Belvedere Theatre, was located at 8320 Germantown Avenue.  It was remodeled in 1936 in a Georgian Revival style by renowned theatre designer, William H. Lee, and renamed the Hill Theatre   A small, single story theatre with no balcony, this theatre had a seating capacity of 497 and its primary purpose was as a movie house.  Though it did have a small stage, it was too small to accommodate stage shows and live performances.  The exterior brick Georgian design handsomely complemented the surrounding environs of stately Chestnut Hill.  The interior, as described by former Chestnut Hill resident and one who worked in this theatre as an usher, doorman and manager, Jack Canney, was conservative and non-flashy.  The entry doors, as seen here in this photo, lead to the main lobby, which also contained two rest rooms, concession stand, stairway to the projectionist booth and a decorative rock garden.  The lobby then lead into the main auditorium where there were three sections of seating separated by two aisles. 

Up until the 1950s, this was a typical family-friendly theatre with Saturday matinees for the kids and mainstream movies in the evening.  Jack Canney recalls that, in the 1950s, the theatre adopted a policy of English films.  There were kiddie matinees only on special occasions and it truly was no longer a neighborhood theatre per se.  It drew a solid, selective audience from a wide area.  It’s chief competition was the Green Hill Theatre, located at 6217 Lancaster Avenue in the Overbrook section of Philadelphia, which showed the same films.  At some point in the mid 1960s, the theatre was purchased by the same person who owned the Bandbox Theatre in Germantown.  So, as with the Bandbox, it took on a new life at that time as a movie house for art, foreign and independent films.  It closed in the mid 1970s and the building was immediately demolished. The lot was then incorporated into the landscape of neighboring Bell Telephone Company (now Bell Atlantic), who actually owned the land that the Hill Theatre was situated.

When asked if there was a sadness in the community when the Hill Theatre closed, Jack Canney believes there was not, at least not overwhelmingly so.  Because, for the final twenty-five years or so of its theatre life, the Hill Theatre had a less-than-mainstream film policy and was not your typical neighborhood theatre.  Their patron base was devotees of such films, which drew from a wide geographical area that extended well beyond the boundaries of Chestnut Hill.  But, this is not to say the Hill Theatre was not special.  It was.  And, Jack Canney, having worked there for ten years can attest to that specialness.  Not only was working there a very memorable experience for him, but he saw firsthand the appreciative throngs that patronized the Hill Theatre.  

 

SOLO THEATRE

The Solo Theatre, formerly located at the intersection of Wister Street & Stenton Avenue, is little known because of its short theatre life.  What is known is that it was a 500-seat brick theatre that opened in 1914 as the Argonne Theatre.  It was sold and underwent extensive renovations in 1925, at which time it was renamed the Solo Theatre.  For all of its life, it was a last-run neighborhood movie theatre.  It was closed in 1929.  There is no record of the theatre building being torn down, only of it being converted over to retail use.  Though unconfirmed, all likelihood is that the current building on that site today, though unrecognizable as a theatre, served as this theatre.  This building, added onto and renovated extensively over time, served as Pletcher Ford until the 1970s, when it was converted over to the recently closed R&S Strauss Auto Parts.

 

WALTON THEATRE

The Walton Theatre was a 650-seat theatre located at 735 E. Chelten Avenue, near the busy intersection of Chew & Chelten Avenues.  This small, nondescript theatre was built in 1915 as a silent movie house at a cost of $12,000.  Though small, it did have a balcony, a small organ to accompany  the silent films and had no stage.  The one feature that seemed to stand out with this theatre was its huge 3-sided marquee, with the Walton name illuminated in big letters. 

Probably more so than any of Germantown’s other theatres, the history of the Walton was a controversial one at times.  Segregationary practices towards African Americans were the sad norm in the early 20th century.  The Walton had just such a practice, requiring African American patrons to view the films from the balcony.  The Walton was not unique and alone in this practice as it was customary of many theatres at that time (The Orpheum, the Colonial, the Germantown/Vernon and the New Lyric Theatres are other Germantown theatres known to have similar practices).  It is quite possible that the other area theatres took similar actions back then as it was so prevalent at the time.  But, what was unique with the Walton was their practice of segregation towards a Caucasian group, the Italian community.  As reported by Joan Saverino in her Germantown Crier article, “Italians of Northwest Philadelphia: Remembering a Community’s Past:”, Germantown-native Norman Giorno-Calapristi indicated that his uncle, Luigi Giorno (son of Maestro Luigi Giorno), who was born in 1916, told him that the operators of the Walton had just such a practice towards the Italian community at one time.  Though Germantown had a very sizeable Italian community, prejudice against Italians did exist in the early decades of the 20th century.  As reported in the article, if a child had dark hair and looked “Italian”, they were required to view the movie from the balcony.  If they had lighter hair and passed as a “non-Italian”, they were permitted to view the movie from the main floor.  This practice often separated families and friends.  Around the late 1930s, a complaint was registered with the Italian Consulate in Philadelphia and the owners were then ordered to cease the practice. 

Throughout most of its theatre life, the Walton was a second, third and fourth run movie theatre.  As was the trend in the 1940s/1950s, double-feature films were the bill at the Walton.  For a short while in the very early 1960s, it showed art and independent films.  But, in 1961, the owners made a decision that forever tainted the memory of the Walton to those who knew this theatre.  It was at that time that the theatre was converted over to an adults-only movie house that showed X-rated films.  The community protests were loud and fierce, but there was nothing that could be done to stop the owners from showing such films.  It was zoned as a theatre and there was nothing in that zoning that restricted content. The owners were free to show any film they so desired.  During its run as an adult film theatre, it was known as the Walton Art Theatre and continued to show such films until 1974. 

In 1974, the theatre closed, then re-opened in 1975 to show legitimate second run films.  It continued in this manner until 1978, when it closed for good.  The vacated theatre building caught fire in the mid 1980s.  The damaged building remained standing and closed until the late 1980s, when a storm damaged the facade and blew the marquee off.  At that point, the building was condemned and ordered torn down. Though unconfirmed, the Walton may not have been razed completely.  The exterior brickwork, as viewed from the side and rear of the current structure, appears not to be newer, but consistent with that of an older building (the Walton, today, would be over 90 years old).  So, it is my belief that the exterior walls were deemed salvageable and used in the construction of the retail stores that currently occupy the site.

The history of the Walton Theatre may be a bit checkered, but it does have a distinct place in the history of Germantown.  For the Walton outlived all of Germantown’s theatres, having been the last to close.

 

WAYNE AVENUE THEATRE

The Wayne Avenue Theatre, located at 4910 Wayne Avenue, opened in 1919 as the Wayne Theatre.  In the 1950s, the name was changed to the Wayne Avenue Playhouse and then changed again, in 1965, to the Wayne Avenue Theatre.  This small 480 seat theatre had a small stage and was built to serve as a playhouse, as well as, a movie house.  However, throughout its theatre life, it primarily served as a movie house.  A rather plain theatre, it was built at a cost of $12,000 and had no balcony.

As early as the 1950s, it found its niche by showing second run foreign, art and independent films.  Vince Young recalls seeing Diabolique, the Jaques Tati comedies and a multitude of other art/independent films in this theatre.  This proved to be a successful policy and the theatre became a trendy haven for devotees of such films.  This policy continued into the 1960s.  Germantown resident Bruce Marshall further recalls a riod of several years in the 1960s when the theatre had a program called “Nickelodeon Nights”, when silent movies, such as with Charlie Chaplin, and old talkies, such as with W.C. Fields, were shown.

The Wayne Avenue Theatre closed in 1968 and was converted to retail use.  In October 1990, it was purchased by St. Andrew’s Fellowship Baptist Church as a worship site, for which it is still used today.

 

STENTON THEATRE

The Stenton Theatre was located at 6069-6071 Stenton Avenue (at the intersection of Stenton Avenue and Beverly Road), across from the present day Martin Luther King High School.  Built in 1919, little is known about this 380 seat theatre because it had such a short theatre life, having closed in 1922.  It is not known why this theatre closed so soon after opening.  It was demolished at some point thereafter. 

Today, residential homes are located on the site of the Stenton Theatre.  Although Stenton Avenue is a bustling commercial district, this particular stretch is made-up of residential homes and gives no indication whatsoever that a theatre once existed at this location.     

 

ALLEN THEATRE

The Allen Theatre was a small 400-seat brick theatre built in 1920.  It was located at 1209 E. Chelten Avenue (near Anderson St), just yards from the Chelten Theatre, which was to be built later (in 1935).  When it opened, it was known as the Chelten Auditorium.  With alterations to add a small marquee, it was renamed the Allen Theatre in 1924.  It was designed by architect Harvey C. Hodgens, of  Hodgens & Hill, a renowned architectural firm that designed several of Philadelphia’s theatres.  From all indications, this theatre was of unexceptional design.  Little is known of this theatre and few seem to even recall it.  When the nearby St. Benedict Roman Catholic parish was founded in 1922, the congregation used this theatre as their worship site until their church/school building was completed in 1924.  The theatre is listed in the tax records as having closed in 1964.  But, in all likelihood, it closed earlier, possibly by the early 1950s.  Today, the building is used as a warehouse and bears no resemblance of ever having once been a theatre.

 

A Personal Memory of the Allen Theatre

I worked at the Allen in 1939 and 1940. At that time it was run by and owned by the Felt family, who had a dozen more theatres in Phila. This theatre was managed by Max Felt, as most of the other family were involved.  Besides the manager, the cashier was Agnes Brooks, who graduated from Immaculate Conception School in 1934, the projectionist was a Mr. Marinelli, from the Frankford section of Phila, and I was the full time usher - doorman helper. Ed Jones was the projectionist helper, and he lived in St. Benedict parish.

In my time we had double features movies every day and night. At matinees, you saw both features and night time you saw, for instance, Scarface first, then Hells Angles, then Scarface again. Of course on Monday and Tuesday nights with a 21 cent admission, you could get a dish and get a service of four dishes over a period of months. On Wednesday and Thursday night the give away could be anything from some donuts or a pound of coffee or glassware.

Changing the marquee with the movie playing the next day was a tricky job, since the sidewalk was slanted and the upper side leaned against the marquee, but the other side didn't and a helper was needed to hold the big ladder so it didn't fall away. Saturday matinee was for the young children and features a serial, short comedy and a feature and a gift for a lucky child, such as a stuffed rabbit for Easter at Easter time. All this for the cost of 11 cents.

This movie house was built when silent movies were the vogue, and had a piano player up front by the screen to blend in with the action of the movie, usually a cowboy or mystery Picture.

Behind the building was a brick building that had a large fan and some pipes that dripped water. The object was to cool the theatre by forcing air through the water and into the theatre to cool down the temperature inside the movie house. However, if a full house came to the movie, it didn't do the job. This was called air cooling, a forerunner of air conditioning.

James H. Robinson

 

COULTER THEATRE

The Coulter Theatre was located at 312 W. Coulter Street (Coulter Street and Priscilla Street) in the Penn-Knox section of Germantown (West Germantown).  Little is known of this 500-seat theatre other than it was built in 1925 as a last-run neighborhood theatre.  As mentioned by Irvin. R. Glazer, in his book “Philadelphia Theatres – A to Z”, the Coulter Theatre was an “unsuccessful motion picture operation that commenced in 1925 and closed less than a decade later, in 1934”.  The reason for its lack of success, I believe, was its location.  Located in a less-densely populated section of Germantown, the Coulter Theatre was less accessible than the other of Germantown’s theatres and a bit off the beaten path.  Upon closing, it was converted into retail use.  Today, it is a vacant lot that is listed for sale as a prime residential property opportunity.

 

SEDGWICK THEATRE

The Sedgwick Theatre, located at 7137 Germantown Avenue in Mt. Airy, was a beautifully ornate building that could rightly be called a “movie palace”.  Designed by renowned architect, William H. Lee, who also designed the Rialto, the Hill and 18 other Philadelphia-area theatres, the Sedgwick was a very handsome theatre in the art deco style.  Primarily built for motion pictures, the Sedgwick did have a large stage that was used for live performances.  This was a very large theatre with a seating capacity of 1,636, with all of those seats on one floor!

The original design called for a balcony, but the plans were altered to remove it from the design just before construction began.  With all other dimensions unchanged,  this explains why the Sedgwick had such a high, vaulted ceiling.  Viewed from the front, one does not get a sense of the immensity of the Sedgwick Theatre.  But, viewed from the rear or the side, I, for one, was in awe of the size of this neighborhood theatre.  Entering the theatre, there was a very large rectangular lobby, which then led into a separate, even larger oval lobby.  These lobbies were handsomely decorated with chandeliers, ornate woodwork, brass railings and mirrors.  You would then enter the theatre through five large archways.  The theatre’s attractive auditorium was highlighted by a beautiful art deco medalioned ceiling light fixture. 

The Sedgwick remained in operation as a movie theatre until 1966, when it closed and was then purchased for use as a warehouse.  In doing so, the theatre was split in two, with a cinderblock wall constructed to close off the auditorium from the lobbies.  The seats were then removed so that the auditorium could be used for its intended purpose, warehouse storage. 

In 1995, the building was purchased by David and Betty Ann Fellner.  They set up the Sedgwick Cultural Center with a mission to “to build community through the arts”.  As much damage was done to the building up to that point, a stage was set up in the oval lobby and performances have been conducted there to this day. 

Plans for a complete restoration of the theatre section and a reuniting of the theatre with the lobbies have been discussed, but with an estimated cost of $10 to $12 million, no work has been done to that end to date.

Hopefully in time, such a goal of total restoration of the Sedgwick Theatre will be realized.  But, much credit needs to be given to the Fellners.  They saved a beautiful art deco icon from extinction.  They created a performing arts center, fine art gallery and venue for film viewing and children’s programs.  That effort has had a tremendous ripple effect in the community.  The revitalization of Mt. Airy is well in progress and, in fact, Mt. Airy has been labeled a “Philadelphia hot spot” by Philadelphia Magazine.  The restoration of the Sedgwick and its reincarnation as the Sedgwick Cultural Center has been at the forefront of the revitalization of Mt. Airy.  For more information on the goings-on at the Sedgwick today, visit their website at http:/www.sedgwickcenter.org.

The Sedgwick Theatre holds special memories for many.  Bob Johnson, a native of Mt. Airy and from the Germantown High School Class of 1965 recalls, the Sedgwick as a “grand old movie palace that could hold its own against any of the downtown theatres”.  In recalling the large size of the two lobbies, he relates “I feel confident in saying that many of the small multiplex theatres of today would fit into the lobby of the Sedgwick” and further relates that he recently visited a theatre in Wildwood NJ that “would fit into the Men’s Room of the Sedgwick”.  Another Mt. Airy native and current resident, Jim Harris, remembers the elegance of the Sedgwick as a “queen among theatres”, a true “movie palace” and “a place of magic to the baby-boomer kids of the nearby Holy Cross grade school”.  Jim recalls having spent many an hour in this grand theatre.  As kids will be kids, he recalls that there was “no law beyond the lobby” during the matinees.  A favorite prank was “bust out” where “a young rogue patron or two would push open the fire doors near the stage during a movie and then scamper off into the distance.  The consequent influx of sunlight would completely wash out the picture on the screen, resulting in audience rioting, and instant celebrity status for the rebellious perpetrators”.  .      

The Sedgwick Theatre, an architectural gem and Mt. Airy landmark, was a special theatre that was so ingrained in the lives and hearts of the local residents and beyond. 

 

BANDBOX THEATRE

The Bandbox Theatre was a small theatre located at 20 E. Armat Street, just off of Germantown Avenue, near Germantown & Chelten Avenues.  Designed by architect, Charles S. Parker, it was built in 1930 and bucked the trend for the large, opulent theatres. This was probably because it was built during the economically lean depression years.  The seating capacity of the Bandbox is unclear.  Theatre records list it as having 400 seats, while others list it as having 220 seats.  Furthermore, a press clipping from its opening indicated it had a seating capacity of 202, with space enough for a total of 400 chairs.  Suffice it to say, we’ll leave it at the Bandbox being a small theatre, most likely the smallest ever in Germantown.

The Bandbox had a rather nondescript exterior although Irvin R. Glazer, in his book, “Philadelphia Theatres A to Z” did describe the exterior as being “a two-story English country house.”   Other exterior features of note were a small, triangular marquee and a large illuminated rooftop  sign that faced, and could be clearly seen from, bustling Germantown Avenue. 

On the other hand, the interior was quite different, handsome and intricately detailed in the art deco style.  As described by Mr. Glazer, “mirrored lobbies and a skillful use of cove lighting throughout gave this small theatre an air of elegance”.  Small as it was, it did not have a balcony.  Another very unique feature of the Bandbox was its trendy art deco basement lounge.  Accessed by way of a stairway off the lobby, this was very popular and was ‘the” place to hang out during intermission, between shows, etc. 

The overall ambiance of the Bandbox was much different than the other theatres of Germantown.  Of the many people that recalled this theatre to me in researching this article, their descriptions were all different, but yet, the theme was very common.  Descriptions range from “chic, “neat”, “avant garde”, “bistro atmosphere”, cool”, etc.  The fact that this was such a small, intimate theatre probably helped foster the laid-back and casual ambiance that was identified with the Bandbox, from its early days through to its closing. 

According to Vince Young, a local film and movie house aficionado, the Bandbox was the first theatre in Germantown to run cinemascope, which was a wide-screen format used from 1953 to 1967, and 4-channel sound.  So, Germantown’s smallest theatre was the first to embrace such changes in film technology.

As with the Hill Theatre in Chestnut Hill, the Bandbox found its niche as an art, foreign and independent movie house in the 1960s.  It was highly regarded as ‘the” place in Philadelphia to see such films, given its small, intimate and trendy setting.  It continued with this format until the mid 1970s, when it closed for good.  The building remained vacant for years before being converted over to warehouse space. 

Next to the Orpheum, the Bandbox Theatre seems to provoke the most fond remembrances when talking of Germantown’s theatres.  I can sum up all of those feelings in the words of “RG” as simply stated on a movie house website, that “the Bandbox was a neat little theatre.” 

With the only exception being the Walton, the Bandbox was the last of Germantown’s theatres to close, having outlasted its much larger rivals in the Germantown commercial district.  Note the “For Sale” sign in this picture.  On a personal note, would it not be wonderful to bring this quaint old theatre back to Germantrown?  Such a restoration, as was the case with the Sedgwick, could very well be the catalyst to accelerate the revitalization of Germantown.

 

CHELTEN THEATRE

The Chelten Theatre was located at 1159 E. Chelten Avenue (Chelten & Anderson Street), just about a hundred feet from the Allen Theatre.  Opened in 1935, the Chelten was the last theatre to be built in Germantown.  Designed by the architectural firm, Thalheimer & Weitz, it was of a modern style that was synonymous with this firm’s theatre design pattern.  This 800-seat theatre had a very small stage, but was built primarily to serve as a second-run movie house.  The theatre was all on one level, with no balcony.  The exterior had an attractive corner entrance, a large bright circular marquee and a circular ticket booth that was separate from the main building. 

As a mainstream movie theatre, the Chelten had a relatively short life.  It was purchased in 1954 by a clergyman who then converted its use into a Christian film cinema.  It continued to show Christian films until 1973, when it was then converted into a church.  Today, the building is home to the Chestnut Hill Church of God & Christ.  The marquee was removed in the late 1970s and the ticket booth is long gone, but the building’s exterior still looks much as it did in the days when it was the Chelten Theatre.

Jim Mullan, born and raised in Germantown, recalls the huge crowd that gathered in the intersection in front of this theatre on August 15, 1945 to celebrate VJ (Victory over Japan) Day.  It wasn’t a planned or formal gathering.  People just flocked to this intersection to celebrate the surrender of Japan to the allies, which marked the end of World War II.  Jim also recalls a penchant by the neighborhood kids to bang on the exit doors seen here on the right side of the building whenever they passed.  They would then run away as the manager or ushers opened the doors to catch whoever did it.  Another former Germantowner, Joe McGough, also remembers these doors from kids on the inside opening them to let their friends in that would then “cause a bit of bedlam in the theatre and from being blinded by the light shining in”.  My aunt, Helen McLafferty McDermott, recalls the weekly dish give-away, a promotion designed to lure adults into the theatre on the slower weeknights, typically a Wednesday.  My grandmother, Ellen Ginley McLafferty, was able to accumulate quite a collection!  This was a successful promotion that was used by other theatres, including the Walton and New Lyric Theatres. 

Though it had such a short life as a mainstream theatre, the Chelten Theatre is one that provokes fond memories from those that patronized it.

 

ERIC TWIN THEATRE

The Eric Theatre was a twin theatre located in Market Square (Crittenden Street and Mermaid Lane) in Chestnut Hill. Opened in the early 1970s, the Eric Twin Chestnut Hill, as it was commonly called, had a total seating capacity of around 400.  It was a part of the Sameric theatre chain that was owned by Sam Shapiro and his partners and was named after his grandson, Eric.  The practice of this theatre chain was mostly to buy existing theatres, then partition them into two, three or four separate theatres, a practice that was abhorred by theatre aficionados.  However, the Eric Twin Chestnut Hill Theatre was built as a stand-alone twin theatre and was a lead tenant in Market Square, a shopping center development that was built on land that was formerly the estate of Randal Morgan, a prominent Philadelphia businessman in the late 19th century to early 20th century.  The theatre exterior was of a modern, brick, un-adorned “boxy” design that is so prevalent in today’s theatre construction.  The interior had draped walls and a trademark for the chain was a large “E” on the screen curtain.  For all of its theatre life, the Eric Twin Chestnut Hill was a first and second run movie house, with an occasional subsequent film run. 

While Chestnut Hill’s other theatre, the Hill Theatre, had a program bill that catered to a very selective, arts-oriented clientele for the last twenty-five years or so of its theatre life, the Eric Twin Chestnut Hill was a true neighborhood movie theatre.  It had the usual Saturday kiddie matinees and the customary film offerings here were intended for general audience viewing.  Personally, I had many memorable times at this theatre.  It was in this theatre that I recall first seeing “The Graduate” and “Easy Rider”, either in re-release or in a subsequent run of the films.  Likewise, it was in this theatre that I recall seeing “The Godfather” for the first time.  The theatre had a relatively short theatre life, closing in 1998 and then was converted over to retail use.  Today, a Citizen Bank occupies the former theatre building.  .

 

THEATRES PLANNED, BUT UNBUILT

As mentioned, Germantown had more theatres than any other section of Philadelphia, with the exception of Center City.  Still, there were five more in the planning stages, but were never built. 

Thomas E. Clemens, in his 1939 published book, Quaint Old Landmarks in East Germantown, reported that a magnificent theatre was planned on the “triangle” of land directly across from the Germantown War Memorial at Chelten Avenue & Wister Street.  While the location of the “triangle” was not specifically defined in his book, that would have to have been the triangle of land bordered by Wister Street, Chelten Avenue and Anderson Street and most probably was to be the future site of the East Germantown branch of the Germantown Savings Bank.  This theatre was never built because, as the necessary land was being purchased, word leaked out as to the intended purpose.  As Mr. Clemens noted in his book, “the price of real estate soared beyond all reason, so the project was abandoned”.   

George M. Holloway, in his 1970s article in The Germantown Crier, titled “Movie Theatres in Germantown,” reported that three theatres were planned in the vicinity of Germantown & Chelten Avenues.  The owner of the Germantown Theatre, the first formal theatre in Germantown, planned to build a 4,200 seat theatre right behind that theatre.  Also, he mentioned that the Stanley Company, owners of several large Center City theatres, planned to build a 3,800 seat theatre at Wayne and Chelten Avenues.  And, as further reported, William Fox, owner of the Fox Theatre in Center City, planned to build a 5,000 seat theatre on the site of the YMCA building that was located at 5849-5853 Germantown Avenue, near Haines Street.  Construction was to begin once the YMCA moved to its new building on Greene Street in 1928 and the old building razed.  All of these plans were in the works at the time of the great depression of 1929, and were scrapped as a result of the economic downturn.   

Lastly, an undated press clipping found in the collection of the Germantown Historical Society indicated that a theatre was being planned for 45 W. Chelten Avenue, across from the Orpheum Theatre and adjacent to the parish house of the First Presbyterian Church of Germantown.  There was no mention of the size of the theatre, but its dimensions were listed to be 85 feet by 142 feet and the cost to be $100,000.  It is not known why and when the plans to build this theatre were scrapped.

 

CONCLUSION

Today, not one of these theatres still exists as a theatre.  Several do still exist, with their auditoriums now home to a church.  Still others exist physically, but their space is utilized for other purposes, such as commercial, retail, warehouse storage, etc.  And the others had their fates sealed by a wrecking ball or were destroyed by fire.  The Sedgwick Theatre is the closest to being a theatre survivor, though it is its large lobbies that are currently being utilized for performing arts and films, not its grand auditorium.  In some cases, namely the Vernon Palace, the Stenton, the Solo and the Coulter, the reason for their demise is not fully known with the passage of time.  However, the real death knell for the theatres of Germantown and elsewhere was the advent of television.  As the popularity of television grew as an entertainment medium, attendance at the movie theatres declined.  One by one, the theatres closed, as the reduced revenue was insufficient to cover their operating costs. 

While they may be gone, the theatres of Germantown and those of nearby Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill are not forgotten and are truly missed.  From the plain to the truly majestic, these theatres were all a part of the lives and culture of Germantowners.  Though now gone, they still exist as fond memories.  They were a part of the very fabric of Germantown, and are now a part of its rich history.

 

 

 

Footnotes 

  1. George M. Holloway in Movie Theatres in Germantown in the Fall 1977 edition of the Gemantown Crier.

  

Acknowledgements

Crucial to this endeavor was a reference “Philadelphia Theatres A-Z: A Comprehensive, Descriptive Record of 813 Theatres Constructed Since 1724” by Irvin R. Glazer (Greenwood Press, 1986).  A special thanks.

Equally crucial to this endeavor was the theater images from the “Irvin R. Glazer Philadelphia Theatre Collection” at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.  A special thanks.

An important part of this endeavor was the images and information contained within the library archives of the Germantown Historical Society.  A special thanks. 

A special thanks to Vince Young, a theatre aficionado and one so knowledgeable of so many of Germantown’s theatres, for his sharing of his special memories on several of these theaters.

To Jack Canney, for your time and sharing of your special memories on the Hill Theater.   

To Jerry Bowers, for your time and sharing of your special memories on the Colonial Theater.

To Jim Harris, for your time and sharing of your special memories of the Sedgwick, the Orpheum and the Bandbox Theatres

To Bob Johnson, for your time and sharing of your special memories of the Sedgwick Theatre.  . 

To Jim Harris, for your time and sharing of your special memories of the Wayne Avenue, the Orpheum, the Bandbox and  the New Lyric Theatres. 

To Charlie “Moose” Hermann and the “P&M” gang, thanks so much for your help and sharing of your memories on the various theatres.

To Maureen Kelly Bowers and Lou Brownholtz for your special help.

The following have been so wonderfully forthcoming with their special memories of specific theaters, for which I am so grateful:  Bruce Marshall (Wayne Avenue), Carol Hartopp Randall (New Lyric), Sheila Roos (New Lyric), Mary Lou Malagieri (New Lyric), Gerry Murphy (Bandbox & Orpheum), Jim Mulllan (Chelten), Helen McLafferty McDermott (Chelten & Allen), Sally Moore Quinlan (Orpheum, Bandbox and New Lyric), Norman Giorno-Calapristi (Walton), Bob Gac (New Lyric), John Brennan (Chelten), Joe McGough (Chelten & Walton), Pat Molody (Colonial, Vernon, New Lyric & Bandbox) and Jim McGlinn (Cayuga),