BY RICK DAPP
Before there was television, before there were videotapes and VCRs (or Betamax for those unfortunate enough to believe that it would succeed), before there was Blu-ray, before streaming video, before you could watch a motion picture on your smartphone, before you could attend a “film” at the “cinema complex,” there were the movies. And they were right in your neighborhood.
Renowned movie critic and author Leonard Maltin once said, regarding the profusion of choices: “Movie theaters still exist in spite of all of the alternatives that are available, video and video-on-demand and DVD and streaming video and all of these things.”
Those fortunate enough to remember neighborhood theaters have a special bond. They enjoyed a surfeit of motion pictures produced by studios that employed a virtual throng of actors and actresses, varied in talent and screen presence, who toiled, along with myriad screenwriters, directors, camera operators, grips, sound and lighting technicians, makeup artists, hairdressers and costumers, as well as countless other worker bees, to crank out the “A” and “B” movies that the public flocked to attend. And that public often flocked to their favorite neighborhood theaters.
Harrisburg was, not unlike countless towns and cities across America, blessed with numerous neighborhood venues for watching the exploits of Hollywood’s finest in movies that changed weekly and were often serialized into episodes that kept attendance at a constant pace.
Unlike the current proclivity for cinema complexes to provide the same offerings, no matter what their location, neighborhood theaters offered disparate productions unique to that theater. If one were a fan of, say, cowboy actor Gene Autry, his current film offering would only be shown in one theater, not, like today, in multiple theaters and on multiple screens.
Each neighborhood theater also had a certain ambience. Some were smaller places, offering a cozy atmosphere, while others offered larger seating opportunities, often with balconies. Balconies, for the uninitiated, were grand locations for couples seeking a degree of privacy and for teens intent on throwing things onto those seated below. They don’t exist in theaters anymore. “Stadium seating” has solved the problem of viewing obscured by taller people in front, particularly those wearing hats (who wears a hat to the movies now?).
Harrisburg was, in the mid-20th Century, blessed with at least 16 movie theaters, some that had evolved from legitimate theaters and others built specifically for screening films. They could be separated by size and location. The larger theaters, like the Colonial, Senate, State, Rio and Loew’s, were located downtown, but the bulk of the city theaters were located in various neighborhoods throughout town, offering entertainment within walking distance.
The Rio Theater, located at 323 Walnut Street, built in 1908, was first called the Majestic Theater. Unlike its downtown contemporaries, the Rio was a dual-purpose playhouse featuring both Vaudeville shows and motion pictures. By the late 1930s, it was a first-run movie house and continued in that direction until the late 1940s when it became a “B” movie house, usually showing double features. Due to its standard fare of westerns, and because it possessed a stage, the Rio featured the occasional western action hero (Roy Rogers and his wonder horse, Trigger, on stage) making a personal appearance promoting their latest filmic endeavor.
Given the sociological temper of the times, the rise of the neighborhood movie theater was not unexpected. Typically, stay-at-home moms and the kids walked to neighborhood groceries and to elementary and high schools (at one point there were 30 schools dotting the city landscape). The automobile, if the family had one, was, more often than not, the province of the man in the family. Harrisburg was a city, not unlike any other American city in the mid-20th Century, made up of neighborhoods, and it made perfect sense to have a theater within walking distance.
Typical of the neighborhood theaters was the Penway, located at 1800 State Street, one block from the Lincoln Elementary School and near the entrance to Reservoir Park. Built in the 1940s, the theater had a drugstore located next to it, often typical for a neighborhood theater.
Spacious for a smaller theater, the Penway offered 812 seats, an impressive triangular marquee and remained a viable operation for nearly three decades, finally being turned into a drug store and then offices. The building still exists, sans marquee, but one can detect in the exterior architecture the influence of the original theater.
Another neighborhood theater, this one on N. Third Street, had a decidedly different existence and end. The Rialto, at 1537 N. Third Street, (“Uptown” as neighborhoods go in Harrisburg, although recent development in the city has identified that particular area as “Midtown”) was the quintessential neighborhood cinema. Originally called the Family Theater, it was built in 1915. It was renamed the Rialto in 1922 and had a 900-seat auditorium. It was, as theaters go, a “second-run” movie house, with largely “B” movies and children’s matinées on Saturdays.
After the sporadic race riots of the late 1960s that left the city somewhat tense, the Rialto screened a little-remembered 1970 film called …tick…tick…tick… that starred recently retired, at the time, NFL player Jim Brown opposite Academy Award-winner George Kennedy. The film dealt with racial tensions in the American South. Because of Jim Brown’s starring role, it fell into the “Blaxploitation” genre and was probably a poor choice for the Rialto to screen. During the showing, the film broke. After additional projection problems, the audience sat for a half hour waiting for it to resume. Many requested a refund, which the Rialto denied. A few of the patrons began vandalizing the theater, and that sparked a small riot that spilled out onto the street with some nearby businesses’ windows being smashed and looted before things were brought under control.
The Rialto never reopened, and the building lingered for years as a vacant, abandoned-looking structure that was eventually razed. All that remains now is a parking lot.
There have been a few survivors of the neighborhood theater in suburban communities. One still in operation across the Susquehanna is New Cumberland’s aptly named West Shore Theatre, originally opened in 1940. In recent years, the West Shore Theatre has had a questionable future. Closed for a period of time before being upgraded to a digital format, it currently remains viable.
Another neighborhood movie house, the Elks Theatre in Middletown, was built in 1911 and for many years soldiered on as “the second longest-running movie theater in the United States. It was closed for a period of time but has been given a fresh start by a community organization, The Friends of the Elks (elksmovies.com). An excellent website for finding out about closed or long-forgotten movie theaters is cinematreasures.org. The site offers a brief history and usually a photo of the specific movie house.
Presently, residents of Harrisburg have two venues within the boundaries, both excellent, and, like earlier times, a big one downtown and a smaller, neighborhood one uptown.
Downtown, the Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts’ Select Medical Digital Cinema shows films on a really big screen.
The Midtown Cinema, which opened in 2001, is a different story, with a variety of first-run films interspersed with lesser-screened but noteworthy independent films and, as a dessert to the film menu, favorites from the past, like Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. The Midtown (midtowncinema.com), located at 250 Reily Street, is described as “Harrisburg’s independent art house theater dedicated to enriching, connecting and educating the community through the art of film.” In addition to their standard fare, the cinema moved outside last summer, under the aegis of the community group, Friends of Midtown, to the parking lot of the cinema for outdoor showings of films with patrons bringing their own lawn chairs and blankets.
Lawn chairs and blankets – now there’s something you won’t see in the parking lot of your local Cineplex.