It’s a brisk Thursday night in September. The year is 1939. Town is abuzz with activity and Spring Street is crawling with people. Where is everyone going this fine night, you might wonder? The line stretches down the block for the main event: the opening of the brand new Penn Theatre.
For many months prior to its debut, the Penn Theatre was a much-anticipated work-in-progress. The Warner Brothers Studios already had the Orpheum Theatre in Titusville, but believed the lively population could support a second theatre. The groundbreaking for the project occurred on May 17, 1939 (Titusville Herald 9/9/1939).
Next was the task of naming the new theatre. The owners wanted to pick a name with local significance that would mean something to the population. Their first choice was the Drake Theatre. Unfortunately for them, a theatre named just that already existed in Oil City. Thus, they settled on the name Penn.
The architect of the Penn Theatre was Victor A. Regiment, “one of the nation’s leading theatrical architects,” (Titusville Herald 9/21/1939) and was built by Felton Pinnter. Pinner later said that building the Penn was one of his favorite projects.
Local businesses and citizens were instrumental in the construction of the movie house. The brick was supplied by the Titusville Supply Company; the plumbing was installed by local plumber C.S. Grove and supplied by Erie Concrete and Steel Supply Company; the electrical wiring was performed by Keystone Electric Company of Erie; and the marquee signs were designed and built by Pittsburgh Outdoor Adv. Co (Titusville Herald 9/21/1939). One of the features people were most excited about was the virtually fireproof roof, made of state-of-the-art “gypsteel gypsum plank” and installed by the J.F. Haldeman Building Specialists of Pittsburgh.
The Penn Theatre was long revered as a structure of great beauty. It was adorned to the highest standards, featuring bronze metal accents from the George F. Werner Company of Philadelphia which were hand-made specifically for the theatre’s lobby. The eye-catching colored glass was manufactured and installed by the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company in colors black, gray, and red. All of the interior decorating in the lobby and auditorium was done by Rambusch Decorating Company and featured draperies and wall coverings by Charles H. Kenney Studios of New York City.
The architecture of the building focused on curved lines and art deco features popular at the time. The theatre was particularly special because of the lighting pillars on the sides of the auditorium that were designed specifically with the Penn in mind. Furthermore, the woodwork throughout was made from solid walnut and the sunken ceiling lights in the Penn could only be seen in one other structure in the entire country: the New York Met. The glass used was Carrara glass, known for its lasting culture and color. Even the bathrooms were beautiful, giving patrons mood lighting through porthole-style lights.
On the night of September 21st, 1939, the Titusville public finally had the chance to enjoy this beautiful new structure. Present to greet the guests was manager Frank C. Brown, cashier Marie Foley, operator Michael Lesko, doorman John Madden, ushers Joe Moran, Francis Dowling, Ralph Knappenberger, and attendants James Hughes, Shirley Proper, and Howard Hughes (Titusville Herald 9/22/1939).
Those who waited in line to see the first film had to pony up 25 cents for a matinee (children 10 cents) and 35 cents for an evening showing (children 15 cents). That calculates to roughly about $4.00 for a matinee and $6.00 for an evening show in 2018 prices. Not bad!
The first person to buy at ticket at the Penn Theatre was Mrs. M.I. Martin of 210 North Martin Street. By the time she bought her ticket, she had waited in line for 2 hours! In line behind her were more than 1,000 people ready to be witness to history. One small boy was quoted in the Herald because of his humorous reaction to the new structure: “the consensus of opinion was expressed perfectly by one small boy,” the Herald wrote. “He bought his ticket and proceeded to gallop through the foyer in his usual Saturday-at-the-Orpheum style. But when the grandeur of the lobby burst upon him, he stopped stock still, eyes popping. After a moment he managed to gasp: ‘Gee, ain’t it purty?’ and he proceeded decorously on tiptoe over the thick pile carpeting” (Titusville Herald 9/22/1939). What a scene it must have been .
For the first few years of its existence, the Penn Theatre showed war films from the European front before each main event, changing out the footage twice every week. These were important updates for many locals whose family members were serving overseas. Movies themselves were changed three times per week, so attendees could see a different movie on Fridays, Sundays, and Wednesdays.
In November of 1939, the Penn Dress Shoppe opened in the theatre building with Rose Bernstein as manager, adding one more attraction to the already exciting downtown (Titusville Herald 11/
Excitement rose even more when the theatre was used not only for movies but also live performances. During Christmastime 1939 the Titusville High School a capella choir gave a performance onstage during a window-shopping tour and sang Christmas songs for the attendees.
Now, you might be wondering what movie marked the historic opening of the Penn Theatre. Ironically, given it’s sad future, the first film shown was Dust Be My Destiny, starring John Garfield and Priscilla Lane.
In late October of 1982, the Penn Theatre “closed temporarily” and owner Richard Neff of Altoona denied rumors that it was for sale or closing permanently. The rumors proved to be true. The property was scheduled to go up for sheriff’s sale on December 3rd, 1982, but Neff declared bankruptcy, halting the sale (Titusville Herald 12/4/1982).
Finally, two years later, the property went up for sale on May 4, 1984, but no bidders arrived that could satisfy the prior liens on the building (Titusville Herald 5/5/1984).
In September of 1986, Ron Day bought the Penn and hoped to garner interest for someone to turn it into a theatre again. By this time, it had been vacant so long it was falling into disrepair and water could be seen pouring from the marquee during storms and broken glass was the only feature being shown. (Titusville Herald 9/17/1986).
In the summer of 1987, a Franklin music promoter briefly showed interest in turning the Penn into a country music house. Unfortunately, funding was nowhere to be found. (Titusville Herald 8/17/1987).
Finally, in April of 1988 the once-luxurious Penn Theatre was demolished. By May 9 the structure was gone, a large hole left in its wake, not only on Spring Street but in the hearts of many Titusville residents. The last film ever shown at the Penn Theatre was Amityville Two: The Possession.
The Penn Theatre is one of the most beloved parts of Titusville that exists now only in our memories. While its beauty can no longer be admired and enjoyed, the memories created within it are something that can never be demolished or destroyed.
6 thoughts on “Remembering the Penn Theatre”
Great writing bringing everyone back to the beloved Penn. Thanks, Jess!
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Jessica, you once again hit a home run!!!!! This bro’t back so many wonderful/fond memories. Thank you ever so much for your informed thorough writings!!!!!!
Nancy Savard Briggs
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Thank you so much, Nancy! I’m so glad you enjoyed it.
I enjoyed reading this informative article and remembered when i was a child going to Penn
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