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From Opera House to Modern Movies: Henry Decker & Half A Century at the Keystone Theatre

For Immediate Release August 13, 2012

From Opera House to Modern Movies: Henry Decker & Half A Century at the Keystone Theatre

There have been many colorful and interesting characters associated with the Keystone Theatre in Towanda over the past 125 years but it's doubtful that anyone spent more nights in the grand old building than projectionist Henry Decker.

Born in Wysox in 1898, Henry started working at the theatre as a teenager in 1914 doing odd jobs and repairing seats. A year later, at the age of 17, he was running the hand-cranked projector for silent films. He left briefly for a stint in World War I but otherwise, he was a constant presence – on site pretty much every night - until he retired in 1968 after more than half a century.

Manager William Woodin hired Henry Decker and provided his initial training as a projectionist. According to newspaper accounts, Decker was hesitant at first since he'd never been in a projection booth but Woodin assured him there was "nothing to it and he could teach him in 10 minutes." Nevertheless, Henry quickly purchased a $2 book on how to operate moving picture machines and studied it thoroughly.

Along with the uneven speed of films shown on a hand-cranked projector, there were also significant time gaps when reels had to be changed. Henry soon figured out ways to minimize both of these issues. After quickly tiring of hand-cranking, he hooked up an electric motor to the projector and never again were films at the Keystone Theater slowing and speeding due to a projectionists sore arm muscles or excess coffee. Before long Henry also invented a signal system that warned of impending reel changes. While the machine still only held one reel, he was able to reduce the switch time from over a minute to 27 seconds, much to the delight of his audiences.

When Henry Decker started work, theaters were showing silent movies – often with a piano or organ player - but they were still primarily places of live entertainment. In addition to being the projectionist, he was responsible for lighting and sound for shows like magician "The Great Blackstone," the Chatterton Stock Co., the LaRue Brothers, operettas, plays, minstrel and vaudeville companies and home talent shows of all sorts.

Decker was working in the theatre for one of the later John Philip Sousa Bands' appearances. The band was so large they couldn't get all the musicians on the stage. Harry Davenport of Canton later became a famous movie actor but Decker became friends with him when he appeared in live road shows at the Keystone in the teens and 20's.

Changes in film occurred in an amazingly short span of time. Although silent film was pioneered in the late 1800's, commercial silent films like those made by Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton began to appear in the early 1920's and the first "talkies" were released before the end of that same decade. All of the top ten grossing silent films were made between 1920 and 1929 – with the exception of "The Birth of a Nation," the racist epic which was made in 1915. (That gross has probably now been exceeded by the silent film "The Artist," released in 2011...) By 1930, most films released had sound tracks.

In a Henry Decker interview from the 1960's, he mentions the "Lyman Howe travel movies" as the first to feature sound at the Keystone. But, in this case, Howe brought "a whole crew of men who were stationed behind the screen and made appropriate noises to go with the pictures such as the roar of a motor, the rippling of a brook, the crash of dishes or the toot of a locomotive." Howe, a native of Wilkes-Barre died in 1923 after a career showing "high-brow" films with sound accompaniment to audiences in rural areas.

In 1928, the first "apparatus" for talking pictures was installed at the Keystone. This early contraption required the projectionist to keep the sound – on large vinyl "Vitaphone" records – cued to match the film being shown. For obvious reasons, this technology was soon replaced by a sound track that was embedded on the film.

Following the introduction of "talkies" in the late 20's, the next major change in motion pictures was the introduction of color in film. The first major color movies were "The Wizard of Oz" with Judy Garland and "Gone With the Wind," both of which were released in 1939. Decker always cited "Gone With the Wind," as the greatest movie ever made. Perhaps part of its' impact may have been the realistic look of color on the big screen for the first time. Maybe the fact that Deckers' old friend Harry Davenport played Doctor Meade also caused him to like it more than any other movie.

Through all the years from the Depression into the 1960's, Henry Decker was running film through the Keystone projectors and providing Bradford County residents the chance to escape at "the picture show." How many dates in the balcony resulted in marriages that still survive today?

Henry Decker estimated that he ran 110,000 miles of film through the projectors at the Keystone and jokingly called himself a "reel veteran." Others who worked under him over the years included Joe McAllister and Donna Hatch, the state's first female projectionist. Decker retired in 1968 and died in 1972. In his life at the Keystone Theatre, he witnessed tremendous changes in the arts, culture and technology – from one of the best seats in the house!

Note: Brooks Eldredge-Martin has collected some of the equipment used by Henry Decker at the Keystone and is organizing it for viewing at the theatre during the Theatre's Anniversary Celebrations in September. The public is invited to the Opening Reception for an Anniversary Exhibit at the Washington Street Station and Keystone Theatre on Thursday, September 6 from 5-6pm. The evening will include light refreshments, tours of the theatre and release of two Grovedale Wines featuring commemorative Keystone Theatre wine labels. There will be a showing of the 1934 "talkie" filmed at the theatre with local actors "The Towanda Queen" at 6pm.


In 1908, the Hale Opera House was sold to The Keystone Opera Company (comprised of E.L. Smith – ancestor of current Bradford County Judge Jeff Smith – and Charles P. Welles, great grandfather of BCRAC director emeritus, Brooks Eldredge-Martin). They leased the building to manager William L. "Bill" Woodin, an old school showman with family ties to theatre businesses in Scranton and Mauch Chunk and later in Wellsboro.

In 1921, Woodin purchased the building, renamed it the Keystone Theatre, and completed a total remodeling that brought the house down to street level, increased seating, upgraded the electrical systems and made it more "modern." Shortly thereafter he went into partnership with M. Comerford of Scranton who operated a chain of theaters in New York and Pennsylvania. Woodin and Comerford also ran the "Wayne Theatre" located somewhere on Bridge St. in Towanda for at least the next few years.

In 1929 or '30, Woodin sold his ownership interest in the Keystone to what had by then become Comerford Publix Corporation. Woodin remained as manager throughout the Depression, retiring in 1939. After that time, Comerford managers over the next 30 years included James C. Tuffy and Margaret Smith Packard. In 1969, the theatre was sold to Walter and Beverly Buffington who owned and managed it until the Bradford County Regional Arts Council bought it in 1988.

The Keystone Theatre is one of three historic theatres owned and operated by the Bradford County Regional Arts Council (BCRAC).  The BCRAC, established in 1976, is a regional non-profit organization committed to the promotion and support of the arts and culture. For more information, visit BCRAC online at


Written by Ruth B. Tonachel.  Ruth is Executive Director of the Northern Tier Cultural Alliance, a former board member of the Bradford County Regional Arts Council and the great great grand-daughter of E.W. Hale.

 Tags: Keystone