National Register of Historic Places
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."