Renovations Are Just Part of Keystone’s History
Special Events Will Afford Views of Latest Project
By Rick Hiduk
Since the Hale Opera House opened on Main Street in Towanda in 1887, the original structure has undergone so many renovations and retro-fittings that one might wonder why the building is still standing. According to Bradford County Regional Arts Council (BCRAC) associate director Elaine Poost, who noted that the theatre’s façade was indeed on the verge of collapsing when the organization assumed ownership in the late 1980s, the nonprofit business will remain open through the next extensive round of renovations so that the public can catch glimpses of the work in progress. The façade was stabilized as part of the last restoration project.
BCRAC announced two weeks ago that major changes to the main house of the theatre will include the addition of a fully handicapped-accessible seating area, safer sloping and LED lighting for the aisles from the entrances to the stage area, enhanced soundproofing, a scissor-lift that will allow for the movement of the theatre’s baby grand piano and other heavy equipment from the floor to the stage, and permanent doors between the lobby and the theatre that will cut down on light entering from the street.
“The historic house at the Keystone Theatre is a wonderful space,” stated BCRAC executive director Brooks Eldredge-Martin, “but we have seen patrons falling due to the steepness of our aisles.” The grade of the walkways is 50 percent greater than that allowed by current construction codes but was “grandfathered” into the theatre’s insurance policy.
Poost is glad that the day has come to address both the aisles and the lack of suitable seating for patrons in wheelchairs. Such an area was created at the back of the theatre as part of a 1999 renovation project, but the space was often taken up by sound and lighting equipment during live productions. When nine children in wheelchairs were part of an audience last year for a children’s program, Poost recalled, “We couldn’t really seat them properly in a way that we felt comfortable.”
The tapestry of the building’s history, gleaned from newspaper articles collected by Malin Martin of Hornbrook, demonstrates not only the evolution of the theatre but also its uses through the years. The original opera house occupied the second and third floors of the building, with additional space and windows that were part of a faux fourth floor that served to vent the building. The entrance to the opera house from street level was at the center of the building, flanked by two shops that saw a variety of uses, including a passenger station for the S&NY Railroad Company, a bakery, a plumbing business, and a teacher’s institute.
According to early newspaper accounts, 900 people could be seated in the initial opera house. Poost laments that no original blueprints or drawings remain of the original configuration, though board members and other local historians believe that there were probably multiple levels of balconies and mezzanines to accommodate such a crowd. The current theatre has only about 500 seats, including nearly equal numbers upstairs and down, and the renovation will result in a net loss of another 50.
The Hale Opera House was not the only show in town, and the manager of its primary competitor, the Majestic Theatre on Bridge Street, was wooed to the Hale in 1914 with much ballyhoo and soon started showing silent motion pictures there. They weren’t silent for long, however, as new theatre director Bill Woodin also acquired the facility’s first organ designed specifically to accommodate motion pictures. Woodin had the Photoplay organ shipped via the Lehigh Valley Railroad to the theatre’s back door. In addition to movies, the revered local showman booked John Philip Sousa’s band several times, as well as popular Vaudeville acts, boxer John Sullivan, and traveling circus shows, many of which were based in Canton. Most people would find it difficult to imagine that an elephant on the stage of the Keystone Theatre was but another attraction 75 years ago.
Woodin eventually purchased the theatre, gave it its current name, and oversaw the greatest renovations of the structure to date when he closed the opera house in May of 1920, brought the stage to the first floor, opened the lobby, and installed the marble staircases to the current balcony. New dressing rooms were built under the much larger stage, and the theatre sported its first canopy marquee. It was touted as an electrical and technological marvel when it reopened in 1921. Being a premier entertainment venue by 1928, the Keystone Theatre was one of the first in the country to exhibit “talking” pictures.
The history of the building is a nearly intangible element, but BCRAC members want to maintain as much of it as possible. Poost concedes that many pieces of the theatre are gone forever.
“Sometimes we do things out of necessity that destroy parts of the past,” she stated.
In the process of this restoration, many existing pieces, such as wall sconces that must be moved initially, will be used elsewhere. Since the theatre will acquire brand new self-rising seats with cup holders to fit the reconfigured floor plan, the seats that have been in place at least since the Buffington family ran the business will be available for purchase by the public at $25 per pair, so supporters with home theatres can own a piece of usable history while contributing to the project.
Poost noted that sales of movie tickets make up the bulk of the organization’s income at the Keystone Theatre, covering payroll costs and much of its upkeep. Additional revenues are realized through live productions, state grants, and membership to BCRAC, which also operates restored theatres in Canton and Sayre. The Keystone Theatre is managed by Kelly Wilhelm and Deb Macnamera.
“These buildings are expensive to keep up,” Poost asserted, “but they are certainly worth the effort for our communities.”
Rather than simply put up “Pardon our Dust” signs and rely on revenue over the next few months from the adjacent modern theatre opened in 2001, BCRAC plans to conduct modestly-priced events in the balcony when it is possible in September and October to keep the project in the public eye.
“They might watch a movie from the balcony but still be able to get a look at what’s happening below,” Poost explained. “We’ll work with the contractors to see what will work best.” Patrons of the special events will see the installation of soundproof panels and the painting of the walls a deeper color, in addition to the many structural repairs planned for the first floor.
“She’s a grand old lady, and we need to bring her back to her glory,” said Poost of the longest continually operating theatre in northeastern Pennsylvania.
Poost, who has been BCRAC associate director for 12 years, related that the board is greatly appreciative of funds made available for the project through donations from the Taylor Family Foundation and Chesapeake Energy. Board members are hopeful that the remainder of the costs for this renovation will be covered by USDA funds left over from the aforementioned stabilization of the façade.
On Friday, Sept. 2, the Keystone Theatre invites the public to its “Grand Temporary Closing” party, which will be held after the 9/11 Remembrance Parade, which is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. as part of Towanda’s First Friday. A screening of the movie, “Spy Kids: All The Time in the World 4D,” is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. Patrons of the family-friendly film will pay just $6 per ticket, the price of which will include popcorn and soda. Board members will dig deeply into the storerooms to pull out movie memorabilia, including cardboard cutouts of movie stars used for promoting films of days gone by with which patrons can have their photos taken. Door prizes will be distributed.