History of the Embassy Theatre by Paul T. Fagley


This page will detail the history of the theatre from 1927-Present.
This document was compiled by Paul Fagley.

INTRODUCTION

The Embassy Theatre was built by Harold and Hyman Cohen in 1927, during the silent movie era, and was styled in the grand tradition of Broadway’s finest “picture palaces.” Billed as Lewistown’s “most luxurious and finest theatre”,  the inside was adorned with many amenities more typical of a city theatre than a small town theatre, and was often referred to as the “Radio City Music Hall” of Central Pennsylvania.

THE COHENS COME TO LEWISTOWN

In 1906, Hyman J. Cohen and his family came to Lewistown from Harrisburg, and entered into the clothing business in downtown Lewistown. One of his first business deals was to purchase the National Hotel property,  which he did against the advice of his friends.  The hotel, located on the southwest corner of “the square.” was over half a century old at that time, and was rather dilapidated.  Hyman immediately improved the property, and tore down some rather decrepit sheds and barns to the rear of tproperty.  The advice of his friends was proven wrong, as the venture soon proved profitable to Cohen.

NATIONAL THEATRE

Beginning in 1916, Hyman constructed a two-story brick building to the rear of the hotel. The second floor was used for apartments, but the business on the first floor was more interesting, for it was occupied by a rather new business -- a motion picture theatre. Known as the National Theatre, this small playhouse was decorated with an eye towards a big city theatre, rather than it’s small town counterparts. Cohen first leased the theatre to an unsuccessful string of would-be entrepreneurs, among them M. H. Whitehouse and Joseph Trippany. Movies at the time cost 5 or 10 cents, and were nothing more than the “flickering silents”, but that industry was still in its infancy. Unable to find a lessee that could make the business go, Hyman stepped in and took over in the fall of 1919. He sent a telegram to his son, Harold, then a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania. For the next three years, Harold juggled his college courses and weekends in Lewistown, operating the National Theatre. The business soon became a success.

BIRTH PANGS OF THE EMBASSY

By 1925, movies were moving out of the flicker stage and were becoming a popular entertainment medium. Synchronized sound was introduced, although true “talking movies” were still a few years away. In this system, called Vitaphone, voice-overs and sound effects were played on a primitive sound system. In that year, another theatre in Lewistown, the Pastime Theatre, upgraded its house by improving the ventilation and adding plush seats. Harold and Hyman were beginning to think along the same lines, and the remodeling of the Pastime may have been a factor in prompting the Cohens to action. Although their discussions on how to proceed are lost to the winds, the resulting plan was not -- to build a theatre that would be a scaled-down example of the finest theatres of the day. To this end, Harold visited the finest theatres of the day -- New York’s Broadway theatres (particularly the Roxy), Philadelphia’s Stanley and Roxy, and several other theatres in Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Louis, and other cities. At each theatre, Harold would take notes and do rough sketches of architectural details he found attractive. These notes and sketches were given to their architect, who incorporated them into the final design. The architect hired by the Cohens was A. D. Hill, of the firm of H.C. Hodgens and A.D. Hill, from Philadelphia. Hill was one of the noted theatre architects in the states. Harold had learned of him from a friend who operated a theatre in State College, PA. In addition, this firm had done the plans of the Pastime remodeling. Hill was a classical traditionalist from London, and he took Harold’s sketches, scaled them down, and incorporated many of them into the design. On April 23, 1927, the National Theatre showed its final feature, “The Love Thrill,” starring Laura La Plante and Tom Moore. Two days later, demolition began on the National Theatre building. The building was gutted to its four walls, its foundation reinforced, and inside the new theatre began to take shape. The contractor was Haverstick-Borthwick Company, from Philadelphia, with Lester T. Haldeman as Superintendent of Construction. Haldeman was a friend of Harold from college days. Meanwhile, townspeople asked Harold to give the new theatre a new name. The architects suggested “Embassy” and “Victoria” among others. Harold decided instead to hold a contest to name the new theatre. The winner was Miss Alice Toohley, who won a $10 gold piece for her entry. She was one of several people who also suggested the name “Embassy” and won because she was the first person who submitted the name. Harold said he liked the name because “...of its uniqueness, for it denotes to the patron a stately building, and the architecture and the luxury of the new theatre will give that impression. “ Other suggested names from the community were “Ambassador”, “The Harold”, “ Penn State”, “Penn Lewis”, “ and “Colonial”.

THE EMBASSY OPENS

After several months of construction, delays due to inclement weather and late shipments of marble, the theatre was ready. On Monday, October 17, 1927, the Embassy Theatre opened its doors. Fred Morrow started the evening with a recital on the fabulous Kimball Organ. Laura Lee sang a series of songs, followed by a local musical group, Leopold’s Ambassadors, and finally, Elizabeth Farrell performed a dance recital. The feature film of the evening was “American Beauty,” starring Billie Dove and Lloyd Hughes. The theatre was filled to overflowing twice, and 500 people were turned away that evening. The Embassy’s Dedicatory spoke eloquently of the theatre, not just the building, but the experience. Presented here in its entirety is that original Dedicatory. To the people of Lewistown and to their children and to their children’s children; to the stranger who might sojourn within its gates either on business or pleasure bent; to all those who in the future years will add their achievements to the modern era of genius; does the management of The Embassy Theatre dedicate this beautiful temple of the play. That they may drink of its innocent pleasures, that they may wrap themselves in the soft cloak of the arts and revel in decent recreation against the humdrum routine of mundane existence, --that they may find surcease from the responsibilities of modern metropolitan life, --that they may enjoy the harmonious tones of beautiful music, -- to them and for this purpose is this theatre dedicated. The architect hired by the Cohens was A. D. Hill, of the firm of H.C. Hodgens and A.D. Hill, from Philadelphia. Hill was one of the noted theatre architects in the states. Harold had learned of him from a friend who operated a theatre in State College, PA. In addition, this firm had done the plans of the Pastime remodeling. Hill was a classical traditionalist from London, and he took Harold’s sketches, scaled them down, and incorporated many of them into the design. On April 23, 1927, the National Theatre showed its final feature, “The Love Thrill,” starring Laura La Plante and Tom Moore. Two days later, demolition began on the National Theatre building. The building was gutted to its four walls, its foundation reinforced, and inside the new theatre began to take shape. The contractor was Haverstick-Borthwick Company, from Philadelphia, with Lester T. Haldeman as Superintendent of Construction. Haldeman was a friend of Harold from college days. Meanwhile, townspeople asked Harold to give the new theatre a new name. The architects suggested “Embassy” and “Victoria” among others. Harold decided instead to hold a contest to name the new theatre. The winner was Miss Alice Toohley, who won a $10 gold piece for her entry. She was one of several people who also suggested the name “Embassy” and won because she was the first person who submitted the name. Harold said he liked the name because “...of its uniqueness, for it denotes to the patron a stately building, and the architecture and the luxury of the new theatre will give that impression. “ Other suggested names from the community were “Ambassador”, “The Harold”, “ Penn State”, “Penn Lewis”, “ and “Colonial”. And beautiful it was. The theatre was billed as “Lewistown’s Finest and Most Luxurious Theatre”, and that appellation was more than just “puffing.” The architecture was Italian Renaissance with a touch of Beaux Arts (Fine Arts), featuring a combination of classical and colonial elements. The marquee, copied from city theatre, was unlike any other in a small town, boasting over 1,000 lights that were animated in spectacular sunbursts and chase lights. It was said to have been the most elaborate marquee between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The inside was basically classical, ornamental, yet conservatively so. The Foyer was trimmed in walnut. The walls were of Rose Travelle marble imported from France, vividly colored ornamental plasterwork adorned the vaulted ceiling, which was accented by crystal chandeliers. Full mirrored doors accented the end walls. The floor was terrazzo in black and green. The box office was constructed of walnut by a company specializing in box offices (the name of the manufacture has not yet been discovered). The box office incorporated Egyptian architectural elements. Cast-on winged lions (the Egyptian god Isis) and shields adorned the top. Fluted columns were capped in papyrus reed capitals. The auditorium was also trimmed in walnut, and contained four ceiling domes, several arches, red plush velvet seats and Spanish Moroccan leather, and niches containing Greek statuary. The decor was shades of cream gray with tints of red and yellow. Plaster rosettes were in green, dragon red, and gold. The carpeting was the finest Brussels carpet, deep red highlighted with gold flowers and diamonds. Behind the last row of seats was a standing rail, topped with glass. This was a novel feature that prevented sounds and cold blasts of air from bothering the patrons inside. The rail was constructed in walnut, with fluted posts and finials supporting the glass. The theatre’s Kimball pipe organ was said to have been one of the finest in any theatre in Pennsylvania. The console was adorned in gold leaf. The organ contained a genuine Chinese gong, a factory whistle, and other special devices for all sorts of special effects. In selecting the organ, Harold said he was concerned with its size, tone, and variety in the organ, not its price. A gold-gilded grand piano sat on the stage. The organ and piano cost $25,200. The stage was only a small vaudeville stage, 12 feet deep by 28 feet wide at the proscenium. To the front of the stage was the orchestra pit, railed with walnut. The proscenium arch rose 20 feet above the stage. The ceiling of the auditorium was so designed as to allow even a whisper from the stage to be heard in every seat. The mezzanine was located under the balcony . Here, tapestries adorned the walls, two large niches housed plush sofas. Bridge parties were held here during the weekdays, complete with a catered lunch. The projection booth was equipped with the most modern equipment available. A dimmer panel controlled red, blue, and white lights in the theatre. Most of the lighting was indirect, a novel feature in those days. When sound movies came in, Harold equipped his theatre with the finest New York sound systems. As silent movies gave way to “talkies,” there too was the Embassy, showing the finest fare available. The thirties saw the introduction and maturing of true sound pictures, color films (particularly Technicolor) and big budget epics. Vaudeville remained popular, with traveling shows, comedy acts, and other performers appearing in theatres. Many of Hollywood’s best known stars appeared on the Embassy Stage -- Roy Rogers, Dale Evans and Trigger; Rudy Vallee and his Connecticut Yankees; Gene Autry; Minnie Pearl; and Snub Pollard, to name but a few. But after World War II, theatres hit a slump, affected by changing attitudes and television. Eventually, for mere survival, the Embassy’s screen began to show X-rated movies. Harold Cohen said that the worst day of his life was when he showed his first X-rated movie, for he always believed in family entertainment. He was forced into showing these films by distributors who had him show the X-rated to get the other films. Harold had secretly hoped that the X-rated films wouldn’t go over in Mifflin County, but found that they filled more seats than other films.

THE END

Harold decided to retire following the death of his wife in 1980, ending a remarkable career spanning the years from silents to modern fare. He leased the theatre to a new group, who did not last long, and soon the Embassy’s Silver Screen went dark. Another lessee tried to use the theatre for rock bands, but again, it was a short lived venture. The Embassy was closed for good on November 4, 1981. For the next 10 years, the theatre stood empty, as Harold tried to sell the theatre. Before he died in 1989, Harold said that it was his final wish to have the Embassy restored and returned to its proud spot in the community. There were a lot of interested speculators, but, alas, no takers.

REBIRTH

After two years of unsuccessful attempts to dispose of the theatre, Harold’s daughters decided to close the estate of their father, and put the theatre on the auction block during the summer of 1991. Learning of the impending auction and looming destruction of the theatre, a group of citizens formed the Friends of the Embassy Theatre, with the intent of rescuing, restoring and operating the theatre as a community center. Otherwise, the Embassy was destined to become another parking lot, and a faded memory of the past. The Friends were able to successfully buy the property for $50,000 at the auction. The theatre had been reprieved. Since that time, plans had been developed to restore the theatre. As Mifflin County’s last remaining traditional movie house, the Friends will restore the structure to its original 1927 appearance. The Embassy Theatre is an outstanding example of a Broadway “Picture Palace” scaled down to a small town size. The theatre has been listed as a historic structure in Pennsylvania and is eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Sites. The Friends are working on the National Register application. Once fully operational, the complex will host a variety of activities aimed at various segments of the local population. Most programs will emphasize enrichment rather than just entertainment. The Embassy is a fine old theatre. Once restored, the Embassy will enlighten out younger generations to the opulence of the theatre and preserve a proud part of Mifflin County’s heritage.

 

 

Historical Document 8

National Register of Historic Places

Nomination Documents

Listing Date: July 28, 1998


The Embassy Theatre, built in 1927, is significant under criterion "A" for entertainment/recreational significance to the history of Mifflin County and under criterion "C'" as an outstanding surviving example of a Georgian Revival motion picture vaudeville theatre of the "golden era" of movie palaces of the 1920's. The Embassy's design was inspired by contemporary theatres in New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. This theatre constitutes an example of metropolitan theatres architecture in a small town setting. The Embassy was one of three theatres operating in Lewistown during its period of significance from 1927 to 1946, and in comparison was high in both its architecture and entertainment significance. The Embassy was the cultural center of the community for many years, bringing the finest in films, stage acts, film stars, bands, and local talent to the residents Of Mifflin County. The theatre was built for Harold and Hyman Cohen, and operated by them through its period of significance. It was designed by Albert Douglas Hill, a partner in the successful firm of Hodgens and Hill of Philadelphia. Hill was a noted theatre architect, but not famous like so many others. In the 2-volume reference "American Theatres of Today", (Sexton, R. W.ed. 1927, 1930), in volume 2, there is a lengthy article on proper theatre design and a checklist of theatre construction, both authored by Hill. The Embassy is a strong surviving example of his work. The architect incorporated many eclectic elements in a design that was at once fantastic and romantic, yet maintained a feeling of intimacy within the confines of the auditorium. During the 1920's, entertainment venues began to change, as movies were becoming the dominant form of mass entertainment. Whereas the two other theaters operated in this time began life as nickelodeon/vaudeville houses, the Embassy was the first theatre in the county designed primarily for the showing of motion pictures. It was also the first local theatre to install permanent equipment for showing sound films.

The Embassy Theatre was built by Harold C. Cohen with his father Hyman J. Cohen as partner, on the SW corner of the square, known historically as the National Hotel Corner. The hotel was built circa 1842 and fronted on Market Street. Hyman Cohen purchased the property in 1915, and remodeled the hotel. To the rear of the hotel were stables and a barn used by hotel quests. With the advent of the automobile, these fell in disrepair. In 1916, Hyman tore the stables down and built the National Theatre Building, a two story solid brick building on a sandstone foundation. An early panoramic photograph of the corner shows that the building was commercial Italianate style with limited fenestration. It contained apartments on the second floor and a silent movie and vaudeville theatre on the first floor. The Second floor windows were curved on top. Exactly what prompted the Cohens is speculative at best. There were three other theatres operating in Lewistown in the mid 1829's. One was the Temple Theatre, formerly the Temple Opera House, located across the street at 2 East Market St. This was originally a vaudeville theatre that was converted to a movie house. This theatre closed at the end of 1925. The other two, the Pastime, at 26 Market St., and the Rialto, at 7/9 East Market, were extensively remodeled and enlarged in 1925 and 1922-23 respectively. Following enlargements, the Rialto seated 800 - 900, and the Pastime seated about 600. The National seated only 425. When completed, the Embassy would seat 682, right in line with the others.

The Cohens desired to bring taste of Broadway to Lewistown. The National, Pastime, and Rialto were built during earlier eras and therefore reflected the more vernacular theatre architecture of the late teens and early 20's. Even though the latter two were remodeled in the 1920's, their architectural styles remained closer to the earlier styles. But during this time, in metropolitan area, theatre design was evolving into what would be realized to the fullest in the grandest Theatres ever built -- the Broadway picture palaces. At this higher plateau of design, theatres were meant to be the attraction, where ordinary citizens would come to escape into a world of luxurious surroundings, settings previously reserved for the wealthy. And to Hyman and son Harold, this idea became a reality when they opened the Embassy Theatre in 1927. Here, in a scale model, so to speak, were the very latest features of theatres ~~ indirect cove lighting, ornate walnut box office, grand galleries, Greek inspired statuary, a spectacular marquee, ornamental plasterwork, a standing rail, plush velvet seats, velour curtains, and many other features. The Embassy was a pinnacle of theatre design in Mifflin County, and within its ornate interior, the citizens of the area found enrichment in the golden age of the motion picture palace.

The Embassy was designed by noted theatre architect Albert Douglas Hill, of Hodgens and Hill of Philadelphia. Harold Cohen said that he learned of Hill from a friend and fellow theatre owner in nearby State College. It is also possible that Harold learned of Hill through business friend (and rival) Ike Berney, owner of the Pastime Threatre, as it was Hodgens and Hill who did the remodeling plans for the theatre in 1925. The Embassy's design embodied the romantic and fantastic spirit of the big theatres. Harold Cohen remarked that he visited famous theatres in New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago and other eastern cities. While at these theatres, he took notes and sketched architectural details, which in turn he gave to his architect, who incorporated many of these ideas into the design. Many details were copied from or inspired by the Roxy Threatre in New York City. Construction began in April of 1927, when the National Theatre building was gutted to the four exterior walls. Haverstick-Borthwick Company of Philadelphia was contracted to build the theatre. Why they decided to use the four walls of the National is not known. However, it should be pointed out that the existing building already utilized the maximum space available on the lot. Also, since the building was only ten years old, it may have been found that the walls were solid enough to re-use, thereby cutting construction costs.


The Embassy Theatre was opened to the public on October 17, 1927 to a huge crowd of patrons. Two shows that night were not enough to handle all those who showed up. Billed as Lewistown's finest and most luxurious theatre, the Embassy became the icon of culture in Lewistown. Its opening was featured in a special seven page supplement to the local daily newspaper, the "Lewistown Sentinel". Article after article described the theatre in minute detail, featuring the decor, organ, heating plant, and intended uses for the theatre. Feature articles on Hyman and Harold Cohen, along with an article on Lester T. Haldeman, superintendent of construction, were printed in this section. The Embassy, from he front facade to the interior, was designed to convey the "Broadway picture palace" experience, as noted in dedication remarks.

To the People of Lewistown and to their children and to their children's children: to the stranger who might sojourn within its gates either on business or pleasure bent; to all those who in future years add their achievements to the modern era of genius; does the management of The Embassy Theatre dedicate this beautiful temple of the play. That they may drink of its innocent pleasures, that they wrap themselves in the soft cloak of the arts and existence,-- that they may find surcease from the responsibilities of modern metropolitan life, --that they may enjoy the harmonious tones of beautiful music, --to them to this purpose is this theatre dedicated.

The Embassy was featured in a two volume set of books, "American Theatres of Today," depicting its design as an excellent example of a small modern theatre arranged for motion pictures.

Nationally, popular venues of entertainment were changing. Although vaudeville was still around, it was losing popularity, while movies were increasingly popular. The Embassy reflected this change, in that it was designed primarily for the showing of movies. The shallow stage was more a setting for the screen than live performances, al- though small concerts, amateur shows, and famous stars would appear there occasionally. Cinematic programs included a newsreel, a cartoon, a serial, and the feature film. And when sound pictures arrived in the late 1920's, these so overtook the public's fascination that the silent film was all but dead by 1930. On December 31, 1928, at 12:01 a.m. the Embassy, and at the same instant the Rialto, debuted "talkies." However, the Embassy was using permanently installed Vitaphone - Movietone sound equipment, while the Rialto was using portable RCA Photophone equipment. The Pastime debuted talkies the next morning, again with temporary RCA equipment. It would be a couple months before these theatres installed permanent equipment.

Lewistown was alive with cultural entertainment in the 1920's and 30's, as the three theatres were in fierce competition, each one trying to outdo the other. Ultimately, each of the theatre found a nichmarket to target. Due to the small market, none of the local theatres were part of the studio circuits, but were owned locally. Individual theatres contracted for movies from the various studios. During this period 1927 to 1948, the Embassy showed films from First National Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., RKO Radio, Disney, and Universal (until 1942) The Rialto showed Paramount, MGM, and after 1942, Universal films. The Pastime originally showed better films, but during the Great Depression became the home of second-run movies and lesser studio fare, particularly "Republic" westerns and serials, and was affectionately called the "Shoot-N-Juke," Bucket-of-Blood," "Roxy," or the "Bang-Bang." Generations of small fry were entertained in the Pastime until it returned to first run features shortly before closing in 1953. As many locals would say, when you were a kid, you went to the Pastime. When you were a teenager you went to the Rialto, but when a young man took his girl to the movies, and he wanted to impress her, he took her to the Embassy.

The impact of color was less dramatic. Although around since the early days of film, true color movies did not appear in wider distribution until the mid 1930's, and it wasn't until 20 years later that studios abandoned black and white altogether, with rare exceptions. On September 9, 1935, "Becky Sharp," the first all-color movie, based on the three-color Technicolor process, was shown in Lewistown at the Embassy.

Many of Hollywood's famous stars appeared on the Embassy Stage -- Rudy Vallee and his Connecticut Yankees (August 29, 1933), Ken Maynard (August 17 & 18, 1937), Tex Ritter & Co. (June 30, 1937), The Great Lester (July 12 &13, 1937), Roy Rogers and Trigger (June 16, 1941), and others. In the 1950's, Harold Cohen decide to bring opera films to Lewistown. Although not as popular as he expected, these films were the finest operas available. Not all of the people to grace the stage were famous film or stage stars. Cohen frequently let local kids and adults on the stage to strut their talents, and prizes were awarded. A movie was made in Lewistown in 1928 that featured the Embassy -- "For the Love of Ruth" -- and starred all local talent. Ruth Brown, Ned Freed, and Clyde Kemp were the lead players. This movie was made by Cudia, a film director that traveled around the country making local films to promote motion pictures. The film is lost, and may be laying in a dusty attic somewhere.

Following World War II, the Miller theatre, at 40 Market Street opened in 1949. Two years later the Temple Theatre (no relation to the earlier Temple Theatre), opened at 1016 South Main St., well out of downtown. In 1954, after purchase by Harold Cohen, it was renamed the Center Theatre. Although handsomely designed and much larger, these two theatres never came close to matching the Embassy in style or grandeur.

Changes were again affecting the industry, as other venues of entertainment overtook theatres as a popular entertainment medium. The widespread adoption of television, more people owning automobiles, better wages and more leisure time lured patrons away from theatres. The studios responded with new gimmicks to lure back patrons, introducing Cinemascope and 3-D pictures in the 1950's, but the public was not hooked. The Embassy tried these, but to no avail. Another change entered in the form of the content of of films, searching for new audiences and styles. The audiences changed from families to younger adult and more educated audiences, where it generally remains to this day. Films today are often made with the intention of releasing them immediately to TV (broadcast or premium service) or video, further eroding the theatre market. Despite this change, however, one fact remains, that none of these movies are as visually striking as they are in the theatre, and the public has readily come to accept this.

In this sea of change, theatres were sold, closed down, and were torn down or gutted for another business. In Lewistown, Harold would eventually also own the Rialto and Miller theatres. Many of the area theatres began closing, including the Pastime (1953), the Center (1956), and the Rialto (1958). Nationally, by the 1960's theatres were no longer designed for elegance, instead they evolved into little more than boxes with a flat screen at one end and the exit door at the other. Older theatres were chopped up into multiple screen theatres called multiplexes, often destroying the original architectural beauty of these pictures palaces. The thrill of the theatre experience was gone, replaced by a "ho-hum just another movie" attitude. By 1981, only the Embassy and Miller remained in operation. In that year, the Miller was acquired by new owners, who converted it into a multiplex. The Embassy escaped the multiplexing remodeling, instead, its fate was as a "porno palace." Some of the old theatres that escaped the remodelings were rented to vendors showing xxx-fare. Decorations were changed and added to heighten this image, but luckily were not as permanent as the multiplex remodeling.

The end as an active movie house finally came for the Embassy on November 4, 1981, when the screen went dark. Vacant, boarded up, the Embassy sat empty, a fading icon of the bygone era, increasingly damaged by the ravages of neglect. In the years following its closure, many speculators expressed an interest but alas no takers. Before Harold Cohen died in 1989, his final wish was to have the Embassy preserved as a historical property, as a reminder of the past, and restored and returned to its place as the cultural center of Mifflin County.

Two years after his death, the heirs of Harold Cohen put the Embassy on the auction block in July of 1991. A group of citizens formed the "Friends of the Embassy Theatre" and successfully rescued the theatre from the wrecker's ball. The current plan includes restoring its architecture and decor to the time the Embassy opened in 1927, to operate it as a community arts center and to return it to its place as a cultural focal point in a rejuvenated downtown. The integrity of the theatre will allow a faithful restoration, even with sensitive changes to bring the building into compliance with modern fire, structural and ADA codes for historic building.

The Embassy Theatre is an outstanding surviving example of a brief but glorious part of a time of utter opulence in architectural and recreational/entertainment history -- "the Broadway Picture Palace."

 

 

Front Facade and Washing

Please note that the pictures on this page require additional load times for users who are on dial up. Full size photos are available in the Photo Gallery section.

The Friends of the Embassy completed several restoration projects to the front of the theatre, which included restoration of the box office, front facade, windows, and a general washing of the front of the theatre.


 

Restored front about 2000.

Same as above.

Close up of Restored Box Office.

Facade view before cleaning. (No 1 in 2001 facade restoration)

Facade view, after cleaning but before window restoration. Notice how much difference after 74 years of grime was removed. (No 2 in 2001 facade restoration)

Facade view, after restoration of windows. (No 3 in 2001 facade restoration)

 

 

Historical Document 7

National Register of Historic Places

Nomination Documentation

Listing Date: July 28, 1998


The Embassy Theatre was opened to the public on October 17, 1927 to a huge crowd of patrons. Two shows that night were not enough to handle all those who showed up. Billed as Lewistown's finest and most luxurious theatre, the Embassy became the icon of culture in Lewistown. Its opening was featured in a special seven page supplement to the local daily newspaper, the "Lewistown Sentinel". Article after article described the theatre in minute detail, featuring the decor, organ, heating plant, and intended uses for the theatre. Feature articles on Hyman and Harold Cohen, along with an article on Lester T. Haldeman, superintendent of construction, were printed in this section. The Embassy, from the front facade to the interior, was designed to convey the "Broadway picture palace" experience, as noted in dedication remarks.

To the People of Lewistown and to their children and to their children's children: to the stranger who might sojourn within its gates either on business or pleasure bent; to all those who in future years add their achievements to the modern era of genius; does the management of The Embassy Theatre dedicate this beautiful temple of the play. That they may drink of its innocent pleasures, that they wrap themselves in the soft cloak of the arts and existence,-- that they may find surcease from the responsibilities of modern metropolitan life, --that they may enjoy the harmonious tones of beautiful music, --to them to this purpose is this theatre dedicated.

The Embassy Theatre on South Main Street in Lewistown is a 1927 motion picture / vaudeville theatre, and is an excellent surviving example of theatre architecture of the 1920's. The basic design of theatre is the Single Balcony Type. The walls of the building were from an 1918 structure known as the National Theatre Building, which was commercial Italianate style, with limited fenestration. In April of 1927, this building was gutted to the four exterior walls, and completely rebuilt was the Embassy Theatre, which opened October 17, 1927. The side and rear walls of the original building remain, however, a new brick facade was veneered over the front wall. The architecture of the Embassy embodies the Georgian Revival style. The interior is a combination of Classical Revival and Italianate. The building is as tall as a two story building, rectangular in shape, with a notched corner. The main auditorium is open from the ground floor level to the underside roof. It has changed little since its construction in 1927, and retains integrity despite a decade of neglect and non-use. The Embassy retains almost all of its 1927 architectural details. Although the front facade is imposing, the building is rather average in size and scale as compared to the buildings around it.

The Embassy Theatre is located at 6 South Main Street, in the heart of Lewistown's Central Business District, at the rear of the southwest corner of "Monument Square" at the intersection of Market and Main Streets. The square is the figurative center of Lewistown, and physical center of the Central Business District (CBD). The Theatre was located handy to period forms of transportation--electric trolley, steam railroad and business, none of which operate in Mifflin County today.

Since closing in 1981, some details have been damaged beyond repair due to dampness and failure of the roof covering. The current owner of the theatre, "Friends of the Embassy, Inc., intends to restore the theatre to its 1927 appearance. Damaged and missing features will be replicated.

The front facade (east wall) of the Embassy Theatre is Georgian Revival, is characterized by a series of formal eclectic influences of the period. The arrangement of windows, doors, and architectural details is symmetrical. The front is of deep red brick. Concrete pilasters, entablature, belt course and lintels adorn the front. The concrete features begin features at the belt course, about 10 to 12 feet above grade. Setting on top the belt course are ten pilasters, eight of which are fluted. The third pilaster in from each and is about twice as wide as the others and is not fluted. Near the top of the facade, an entablature runs corner to corner. The wider pilasters continue on top of the entablature. The facade elements are very similar to Doric order.

An elaborate marquee extends over the entrance to the theatre. The marquee roof is rectangular, 33' 6" by 10' 6" overall. The marquee panels vary between 3' and 5' in height, and are supported by four heavy gauge steel "I" beams cantilevered into the interior balcony steel framing. The original ceiling was wood painted white. Light bars of individual bulbs, typical of marquee design, were placed around the perimeter of the ceiling, and intervals running from front to back. The marquee panels were sheet metal, painted in many colors, and incorporated over 1,000 lights that were animated in chase lights and sunbursts. The front panel consisted of the word "EMBASSY" in large raised letters lit by bulbs.

The front entrance consists of four sets of two. doors, two sets on either side of the box office. The original doors were oak-veneer, stained walnut in color. Each door contains three glass panels. The top panels are adorned with silver-leaf pin striping and painted background. The top left panel in each set of doors contains a large fancy letter "E" in the pin striping. The middle panels incorporate hinged glass panels on the back, allowing them to be used as advertisement cases. The bottom panels are also colored.

The box office is constructed of varnished walnut, with turned, carved, and cast-on adornments. The office is octagonal in shape. The enclosure contains recessed panels top and bottom. Some of the upper panels are filled with glass. The front glass contains a speaker hole with screen and an opening at bottom for exchange of money and tickets. The shelf of the front is made of rose marble with a coin cup ground into the top surface. Walnut display case flank each side of the box office, and included (removed) fancy castings in the corners of the case doors. The styling of the decorations on the box office is Egyptian Revival. There is a shelf ledge approximately thirty inches from the bottom. Miniature fluted columns rest of the ledge, covering the corners between the glass panes. The columns are topped with a leaf capital. The columns support an entablature. The architrave consists of a band of walnut with "smile-like" indents. The frieze contains adornment of a lion with wings and a falcon's head, similar to a griffin, carrying bands of intertwining foliage and flowers. These border shields are centered on each face. The cornice consists of a lintels strip under the top molding. The entablature on the exterior carries onto the flanking display cases.

Originally, there were four walnut advertisement cases between the doors and the corners of the building. They were fashioned after similar cases on the Roxy Theatre, New York City. These were later replaced with modern aluminum cases (date unknown, but prior to 1949).

There are seven casement windows on the mezzanine level (second level). Each window consists of a transom over two operating sash. Five of the window have pediments on top. The second from each end has flat hood molding, topped with a cast stone bracketed cornice. The windows are painted white. There are three single-sash casement windows on the third level. Two open from the projection room. The remaining window is in the auditorium.

The side (north and south) and back (west) walls are of brick construction, three courses thick, with a hodgepodge of different red colored bricks. Along the second story level, bricked-up windows are evident. These windows have curved double soldier-course lintels, and are supporting evidence that the shell of the building pre-dates the Embassy Theatre. The top eight feet or so of each wall is of a different brick composition, indicating the height of the building was increased when the Embassy was constructed. The side and rear walls are capped with terra-cotta capping. There are nine sets of fire exit doors on the side and rear walls, all faced with plywood and painted red.

The north wall originally faced a dead-end pedestrian alley between the Embassy and the National (later renamed Taft) Hotel. The hotel was gutted by fire in 1970, and was demolished shortly thereafter. The vacant lot where the hotel was located is a separate parcel of land associated with the theatre by common deed. There are three grilles near the top of the wall, which were for the original ventilation system. A smaller grille is centered of the wall. There are two small round arched double hung windows and a rectangular double hung window opening into the restrooms. There are three sets of fire exit doors on this wall.

The northwest corner of the building is notched around another building, known as the Laskaris Building (historically the "Elder property"), at 6 West Market Street. Although the two buildings are in physical contact with each other, they are separate and distinct buildings, and there is no interior connection between the two. At the rear corner of the notch is fire exit and three foot easement for egress of patrons.


The south wall is along the edge of a public alley. This wall also contains a set of ventilator grilles, two windows, and three fire exit doors. The front and middle set of doors are raised panel on the inside, and appear to be original fire exit doors.

The west wall is the rear of the building, set back from the property line three feet. As an egress easement in common with the Laskaris property. There are two original sets of doors from the stage on this wall. The center of the wall contained a projecting wooden structure, which was known as the "Horn Room". This small enclosure housed the speaker horns behind the screen, and was installed in December of 1928 when sound equipment was installed. The room was removed in 1991 due to advanced deterioration.

The roof is constructed of wooden curved trusses (setting on steel I-beams), wooden rafters, and sheathing. The covering is a hot-tar roof. All four walls form parapets along the entire edge of the roof, hiding it from view from street level. The roof shape is best described like "an elephant's back". The high point of the roof is forward of the center of the building.

The interior of the theatre is eclectic in many styles, including Classical Revival and Italian Renaissance Revival. It is an excellent example of theatre décor and styling of the 1920's. The layout of the building is typical of the period, and consists of four principal components: the foyer and inner lobby, the mezzanine, the auditorium and balcony, and the orchestra pit and stage. (See drawings in Floor Plans section for exact layout.) The Embassy incorporated the latest stylistic features including indirect lighting and a standing rail. The interior consists of mostly plaster; wood trim of walnut or other wood stained walnut color, and marble. Paint schemes were in shades of cream gray tinted red and yellow, highlighted with red, green, and gold. Later redecorating included painting over varnished woodwork and simplifying complex paint schemes. Total seating capacity was 682, including 446 on the main level, and 236 on the balcony, including 70 loge seats.

The foyer walls are rose travelle marble, imported from France. The floor is terrazzo with a black and green border. The interior doors are full- panel glass and wood doors. They are located in a direct line behind the front doors. The ceiling is vaulted and divided into three panels, each separated by a rinceau band. Rinceau bands bracket the panels at the room ends as well. Each panel consists of a decorative plaster border and a rosette centered in the panel. Original light fixtures are missing.

The end walls of the foyer contain doors with full glass mirrors. These doors open into rooms under the grand staircases. The room to the north was originally a cloak room, the south room contains electrical panels. Circa 1940, the northernmost set of entry doors were sealed shut and a candy counter was placed in this end of the foyer. The mirrored door to the cloakroom was removed and no longer exists. A valance was built over the counter, hiding part of the ceiling.

The inner lobby contains two grand staircases to the mezzanine level and two sets of fire exit doors. The south end fire doors have an entablature-like hood molding on top, the north doors do not. The men's restroom is located at the north end of the inner lobby. The standing rail separating the inner lobby and the rows of seats was a new feature of theatres in the 1920's. The raid was intended to reduce blasts of air and noise of people entering the theatre. There are three entrance aisles to the main floor in the standing raid, one at each end and one in the middle. The standing rail's overall height is about eight feet. The base of the rail is constructed of walnut-colored wood, and is four feet high. The inner lobby side of the base includes recessed panels, while the auditorium side is made of vertical wainscoting. The top of the rail is made of re-curved glass panels supported by vertical posts, which are fluted and topped with a capital and finial. The grand staircases are open on the auditorium side, with a rail and balusters. The stairs are made of oak. Carpet runners were on the stairs. The main auditorium has a bowl shape concrete floor on grade and a tiered balcony that slopes toward the stage. There is a large rectangular ceiling dome in the main ceiling, which includes hidden cove lighting and an oval rosette. The stage is on the west end of the room, opposite the inner lobby and foyer. The opening is bordered by a rectangular proscenium arch 28 feet wide and 20 feet high. To either side of the proscenium are plaster pilasters, arches, and decorative plaster. The grouping consists of four fluted supports pilasters, with Ionic capitals, supporting an entablature, which in turn support three arches in an arcade, at balcony height. The arches are filled with diamond lattice plaster grille, which are the openings into the organ chests on both sides and one of the ventilation rooms (south side only). The middle arch contains a metal ventilation grill below the diamond grille, and the third arch contains a rinceau. A cornice divides the walls and proscenium pilaster. The south exit also contains the bottom of a staircase from the balcony. A niche is located between the second and third pilasters. Just lass the last pilaster, the auditorium widens under the balcony. There are fire exit doors in the alcoves on each side. Wall decorations consist of wood moldings framing plaster panels.

Directly in front of the standing rail are four columns, with Doric capitals, and are painted to look like gold-colored marble. There are three round domes in the ceiling under the balcony, which incorporate hidden cove lighting.

The stage is rather small. As it was not designed to accommodate large theatrical productions. Non-movie performances were limited to small concerts, amateur talent shows, and traveling vaudeville era entertainers. The stage floor is three feet above the main floor of the theatre. The stage itself is 12 feet deep by 28 feet wide at the proscenium arch. There are small wings on each end. The only lights were a row of footlights. The walls of the stage are plain white plaster. The horn room was located in the center rear wall of the stage. A wooden 1950's vintage Cinemascope screen frame sets on the stage.

A small orchestra pit was located directly in front of the stage. The width was twenty-two feet. The rear wall was set back under the stage floor two Feet, and was plastered. The front of the pit was curved to match the curve of the seats. A low railing enclosed the pit from the aisle in front of the seats. This rail was made of walnut, and included turned balusters. A large Kimball organ, which was sold in recent years, once stood in the pit. A wooden floor was erected over the pit in the 1960's. The front of the stage was brought out, and the footlights were removed. Parts of the pit railing have been found under the stage. In early 1994, the stage floor was dismantles to allow reconstruction, for the beams underneath are rotting due to dampness.

The mezzanine is located over the foyer and under the upper part of the balcony. A staircase rises from the center of this level to the balcony cross-over. The manger's office, usher's closet and ladies lounge are on this level.

There are three of rows seats at the front of the balcony. This area is known as the loge, and historically it cost a dime extra to sit in this area. There are four short stairs accessing the loge from the cross-over. Two are along the side walls of the theatre and continue past the loge to the end of the organ chests, where there are staircases for fire exit. The front of the balcony is a low wall with a brass handrail.

To the upper side of the cross-over are two balcony seating areas. Another iron-pipe rail is mounted on the front of the first row above the cross- over. A single stairway ascends through each of the two balcony sections.

The projection room sits on the upper balcony, roughly dividing it in half. The staircase from the mezzanine is directly under the room. There are two square columns in front of the projector room. The door of the room enters from a balcony level on the north side. A rewind room and a restroom are along the east end of the room. The inside of the projection room is finished with concrete for fireproofing. The room contains vintage equipment, providing information on the period theatre technology.

The original seats were wooden back with deep red velvet backs and red Spanish Moroccan leather seats in the main floor and balcony, and upholstered tapestry/leather in the loge. The carpeting through out the theatre was the finest Wilton Carpets. The color was deep red highlighted with gold diamond and flower patterns. The seats and carpet were replaced in the 1950's. A few surviving seat backs, cushions, and carpet remnants have been found in the theatre.

Since closure, some plaster damage has occurred, due to roof deterioration. Luckily, very little of decorative plaster was damaged; most of the plaster damage is confined to non-decorative plaster. All of the exterior doors and many of the interior doors are damaged from moisture, some beyond repair. Mechanical, electrical, and all other systems are antiquated and worn out.

The Embassy Theatre is an outstanding surviving example of a small town theatre that embodied the stylistic and eclectic features found in metropolitan theatres. Almost all of the essential architectural characteristics comprising the integrity of the building are present. Although not colossal in scale, the theatre achieves the "romantic and fantastic spirit of the theatre" typical of the larger Broadway style pictures palaces of the late 1920's. The features both outside and inside all contribute to a sense of elegance and grandeur that is uncommon in modern movies houses.

 

 

Rebirth of the Marquee

Please note that the pictures on this page require additional load times for users who are on dial up. Full size photos are available in the Photo Gallery section.

Introduction

The greatest thing about the new marquee is the community involvement that went into it. Many businesses and individuals had a hand in it's rebirth, donating time, materials, or equipment, or providing these at a reduced cost. As a consequence, the price tag was much lower than expected. The Friends recreated the marquee for about $45,000. That may sound like a lot, until you consider that we received quotes from out-of-the-area companies as high as quarter of a million dollars!


Removal and Documentation

When the Friends purchased the theatre in the summer of 1991, the marquee was in very bad shape and had sections in danger of falling. Over the next several months, the marquee and its ceiling were removed. The panels were stored inside for a time.

Volunteers begin removal of the marquee. Photo credit: The Sentinel

In the fall of 1992, the panels were measured and documented. Several photographs were taken to document the original panels, and scrapings were done to document the original colors. Paint schemes lines could still be seen under layers of paint. All of this was recorded. The panels were then put into long-term storage in a nearby unused building. Over the years, the panels disappeared, and what happened to them is unknown.

Section of the front panel showing the left sunburst. Notice the advanced corrosion along the bottom edge. Photo credit: Paul T. Fagley

Photo of one of the letters. About 1942, they were converted to neon tubing. The sockets for the tubing can be seen in the bottom of this letter. Photo credit: Paul T. Fagley

View of one of the side panels. The fancy notch on the left is where the panel fit over coping details on the building. The "L" shaped notch was for the transformers for the neon tubing, which was placed over the original chase lights (area in green), which were covered with stainless steel. Photo credit: Paul T. Fagley

Documentation took several days. Each of the light bulb holes were measured to get accurate details for eventual replication. Hundreds of measurements were recorded and notes were taken on any possible. Historic photos were examined for details as well, such as the ones in the previous chapter. Unfortunately, all of these photos showed only the front of the marquee. One photo that "came light" at this time illustrated the end panels, and also showed that the original letterboars were "reversed lettering."

In this blown-up of a section of a 1941 photograph, the reverse lettering on the end panel can be seen. Shortly after this photo was taken, the letterboards were changed to back-lit solid letters. If you're interested, "That Hamilton Woman" starring Vivian Leigh and Laurence Olivier was playing on the screen. Photo credit: Paul T. Fagley

Finally, conversations with knowledgeable local citizens, like the late Bob Hambright (The Movie Man) helped to answer many of the questions that could not be answered in other ways. Enough information was gathered, now came the hardest task - raising enough money to rebuild it.

A "light up the marquee" campaign was initiated to sell the light bulbs (similar to a "buy a brick" campaign) was initiated to raise money to rebuild the marquee. Unfortunately, although many were sold and a lot are still available, sales were never strong enough to raise sufficient monies to do the marquee. The other option was to secure a grant, but the Friends needed to build the project up to a point where we could go for the money sufficient to be able to do the marquee, estimated to be well over $25,000.

Over the years, the Friends worked hard to build the credibility of the project. Events like the annual festival helped to raise monies to cover overhead expenses so that some money could be put into projects. Then in 2001, the Friends successfully raised $14,000 to clean the front and restore the front windows. On the heals of this project, the time seemed right to go for the marquee.


The Dream Becomes A Reality

After the successful front cleaning project of 2001, the time seemed right to go for the marquee. In the summer of 2002, contact was made with State Senator Jake Corman's office about a possible grant. Interestingly enough, the Senator was thinking along the same lines. A Community Revitalization grant was submitted to the Dept. of Community and Economic Development.

On October 17th, the Embassy Theatre celebrated it's 75th birthday. That evening, at the open house party, Senator Corman was there to help celebrate the occasion, and presented a wonderful birthday present - a check for $40,000. The funds were now in hand.

Senator Corman presents a check to the Friends. Photo credit: Paul T. Fagley

Preparations soon began to begin construction of the marquee. The Friends contacted Metlmex, a local metal fabrication firm, to finalize design and construction parameters. The sketches and notes of the original marquee were transferred to scale drawing, and then were made into full-size plywood templates.

Templates of the original marquee. Photo credit: Paul T. Fagley

In the meantime, paperwork was prepared and submitted to request a zoning variance to be able to use the marquee. In the 1960's, many communities across the nation, including Lewistown, zoned out certain types of signs, including ones that have flashing and animated signs. Often these laws were aimed at keeping downtowns from turning into "Las Vegas" style strips, or over concerns of driver distraction. The other variance requested was to allow us to advertise community events and happy messages on the boards.

The following links refer to two documents concerning the variances. The first is the variance application, and the second are notes or "talking points" for the variance hearing.


Embassy Varaince Hearing Document Click Here

Talking Points for Zoning Click Here

Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader


The Friends request was made on historic preservation grounds. In today's world, flashy marquees like the Embassy's are no longer necessary to advertise the theatre. The true reason for restoring it was to preserve the ambiance of the classic theatre, to preserve for the future generations the total theatre experience. The borough approved the necessary variances. The Friends agreed to voluntarily restrict its usage.

Several components were pruchased this time, including 1400 light bulbs, sockets, the letters for the ends, and five digital controllers for the animation. Digital Lighting Systems, whom we purchased the controllers from, are featuring us on their website at:

http://www.digitallighting.com/animationfolder/projects.htm

By the beginning of May, we were ready to begin construction of the marquee.


Construction Begins

In Mid May 2003, work began at Metlmex Corporation on the marquee Metlmex was the perfect company to build this. While they had never built anything close to a marquee before, they were experts at custom metal fabrication. Principal owner David Suloff and the workers were anxious to do this community project. In some respects, they said it was just another shop job, but this was also a unique project. All of the employees "went the extra mile," putting more effort into making this project perfect.

Once we worked out the parameters of the project, construction would be straight-forward. Two major changes (and a handful of lesser) would be included on the new marquee. The first is that the new marquee would be built from aluminum, rather than steel, which would be much more weather resistant than the original. The second was that the marquee had to be servicable. It was decided to make the face panels removable, rather than permanently fastened, as in the original. The front panel frame was fabricated as one unit for greater strength. The original was evidentally built in two sections. The front panel is 32-1/2 feet long and 5-1/2 feet high in the center.

Front panel frame taking shape on the Metlmex shop floor. Photo credit: Paul T. Fagley

The interior ribbing of the front frame is completed. Photo credit: Paul T. Fagley

Metlmex employee Rich Romig installing the rear panels. Photo credit: Paul T. Fagley

The letter "A" taking shape. The front panel letters were made as seperate pieces and then attached. This made it easier to paint them. The original letters were permanently mounted to the face. Photo credit: Paul T. Fagley

The first pieces of the marquee to be completed. Photo credit: Paul T. Fagley

The front panel fully assembled. The panel, minus paint and electrical components weighed in at 1,050 lbs (1/2 ton), estimated to be half of what the original one weighed. The plywood templates made it easy to layout the holes for the lights. Fun Trivia Question: Metlmex had to stamp out more than 1,000 holes in the front and side panels and celing light strips, for the light sockets. Guess how many they missed? (Answer at the end of the chapter.) Photo credit Paul T. Fagley

One of the side panel frame takes shape. These panels are 10 1/2 feet long and 6 1/2 feet high. Photo credit: Paul T. Fagley

The sunburst panel on top of the side panel. Photo credit: Paul T. Fagley

The chase light panel for the side. The center section (inside the tape) will be cut out for the changeable letterboards. Also note the two small circles to mark the location of light holes, not yet punched out. Photo credit: Paul T. Fagley

A side panel assembled. Photo credit: Paul T. Fagley

Some of the Metlmex crew poses in front of the panel. Photo credit: Paul T. Fagley

All of the Metlmex people were a delight to work with on this project, and the Friends of the Embassy depply appreciate their help with this project. Unfortunitly, Metlmex went out of business a few months after completing the marquee. It stands as a legacy to this unique company in our area.

Answer to Trivia Question: Using the templates, they punched a centering mark where each hole would be stamped out. Everyone of the holes was stamped exactly. Not one was stamped out of place. However, in examining all of the panels, ONE hole (out of over 1,000) was found to not have been stamped.