Classic Movie Theaters: The Colonial, Phoenixville, Pennsylvania

A recurring series about movie theaters of the past

Colonial Theater
Colonial Theater Image courtesy of Flickr user schwenkenstein01

Nothing beats the experience of watching movies in a real movie theater. Not the concrete boxes in a multiplex, but an actual theater with aisles, a stage, and perhaps even a balcony. In what I hope will be a recurring feature, I’d like to introduce you to some of the classic movie theaters across the country. Send in your own suggestions as well to [email protected] and we’ll feature the best entries on the blog.

I’ll start with the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. Located right on a downtown main street, the Colonial is both a connection to the past and an anchor for a thriving community.

The Colonial started when Harry Brownback lost his family’s Majolica pottery plant to fire and a bad economy. Using $30,000 in proceeds from his settlement, Brownback combined two storefronts on Bridge Street into the Colonial Opera House. The theater opened on September 5, 1903, and the first movies were shown there that December.

The theater alternated between stage shows and concerts at first, but movies became an increasingly important part of the schedule. A Wurlitzer organ introduced Fox Movietone newsreels, and the theater was wired for sound in 1928 when Warner Brothers’ The Jazz Singer screened. 1925 saw the theater’s last stage show, Very Good Eddie, although the venue continued to be used for benefit performances.

George Silverman purchased the theater in the late 1950s, and rented it out to Good News Productions in 1957 to film The Blob, a low-budget horror movie starring Steve McQueen. That might have been the Colonial’s high point, because by the 1970s it was, like most theaters of its kind, in danger of closing.

Mary Foote moved to Phoenixville in 1987 and attended one of the Star Trek films a few years later. “All I remember was that the sound was terrible, the picture was horrible, and the seats were uncomfortable.” she told me recently. “But it was a really cool building.”

Several owners of the Colonial tried but could not make a profit with the theater. The building closed in 1996, but that December, concerned residents, including Ms. Foote, worked with the Phoenixville Area Economic Development Corporation to try to re-open the theater, using a new non-profit group, the Association for the Colonial Theater (ACT).

“There were organizational problems, business problems and then building problems,” Foote, who is now the executive director of the theater, remembered. “We put together a small group with strong ties to the community, people we knew could help us raise money. We were lucky to have a few businesses who took a risk. For example, a hospital foundation gave us $75,000 toward our first campaign. The feeling was the theater would improve the health of the community.”

ACT needed a half-million dollars to install new projection equipment and get the building up to code. “The audience for the theater had dwindled to nothing, so we also had to build the business,” Foote said. “We decided to go with art and independent films rather than compete with the twenty-some screens right in our back yard. We also wanted to bring a better level of programming to the area.”

The Colonial re-opened on October 1, 1999, as Run Lola Run screened with over 300 in attendance. Since then ACT has initiated several phases of renovations, investing over $2 million in the theater. It has also expanded its programming calendar to include concerts, lectures, and film series.

“We do classics on Sundays, we’re moving into documentaries, and we do a pretty broad children’s program,” Foote said. “We have a Blobfest every summer. We do a Rocky Horror Picture Show once a year. We just launched a new program with TED – Technology, Entertainment, and Design, a speaker forum in which smart, interesting people come and speak. The hook is they can only speak for 18 minutes because the organizers believe you can say what you need to say in that time”.

Savvy theater owners always knew the key to success: adapt or die. The 1920s saw the rise of the movie palaces, opulent, ornate theaters designed to awe and overwhelm their customers. During the Depression theaters staged “dish nights,” in which they gave away chinaware and cutlery, and acted as babysitters during Saturday matinees. Competing with television and multiplexes is obviously tough, but as Foote put it, “Our first competitor isn’t the movie theater down the street, our first competitor is the cost of cable, Netflix, all the other reasons people stay at home. But we feel that if you offer quality programming, people are just dying to get out and enjoy themselves with other people.”

ACT continues to renovate and refurbish the Colonial, and plans to expand into a bank next door to the theater that was built in 1925. “We opened in 1999 on a block on Bridge Street where all of the changes in society that caused downtowns to go downhill were evident. We had a very low occupancy rate, most of the stores were gone, there were very few restaurants,” Foote said. “Right now Phoenixville is a pretty vibrant place.”

The Colonial deserves some of the credit for the resurgence in downtown Phoenixville. When you attend a film or concert there, you join theatergoers who saw Mary Pickford live on stage, or the first run of The Birth of a Nation and Gone with Wind. It is a wonderful experience.

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