History of the Embassy Theatre by Paul T. Fagley
This page will detail the history of the theatre from 1927-Present.
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.
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.
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.
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.