For Immediate Release June 20, 2012
Remembering the Keystone Theatre’s early years
As the Keystone Theatre’s 125th anniversary celebration draws near, the pages of its history bring to light the numerous people who were involved in the evolution of this fine building. It presents a timeline of how the edifice began as a theater, which in newspaper articles dated 1914, “will be first of all, a theatre for the best dramatic and musical attractions on the road.” When these shows were not being offered, the theatre was host to moving pictures and vaudeville “of the better class” would be presented “at popular prices.”
The person in charge of the theater at that time was William Woodin. He purchased the latest technology, for 1914, in silent moving picture machines and explained it as the “flickerless type” – it was operated by an electric motor so it didn’t have to be turned by hand. And, it came with an automatic winder. This equipment was installed in a room in front of the opera house building, formerly occupied as a school of telegraphy. This original projection booth was separated from the theater by a substantial wall, thus avoiding danger from fire.
Mr. Woodin and his family lived in apartments in the opera house block, “so they will be in constant attendance at the theatre.” Since the box office was located at the foot of the stairs, it would open every day at 9 a.m. and the family could assist patrons with ticket sales.
Prior to coming to the Keystone Opera House, Woodin leased the Majestic Theater, that was formerly located on Bridge Street in Towanda. When Woodin came to the Keystone Theatre, it was managed by Lester C. Gillette ,who opted to return to his drug store in the Patton block of Towanda, full-time.
The first silent film offering, from Woodin, was “Misleading Lady.” It is reported, from a Nov. 1, 1917 clipping, that Woodin also had a new Photoplayer orchestra organ installed in the theater. It was quite large and had to come on a special Lehigh Valley Railroad car that held the six very large boxes that contained all of the organ parts.
In 1920, Woodin announced he would purchase the opera house from the Keystone Opera House Company (owned by Smith & Decker) and remodel the existing playhouse into a modern ground-floor house. He also, in 1920, sold his interest to the Comerford Corporation, a syndicate with corporate offices in Scranton, which controlled a large chain of movie theaters. Woodin was retained as manager of the Keystone Theatre and put in charge of all local business dealings with the new playhouse. Woodin was described as “the hustling manager of the Opera House.”
Woodin’s plans included bringing the theater down to the ground floor with a lobby directly even with Main Street. Improvements would also be made to enlarge the stage and the dressing rooms would be put under the stage. The renovations also included asbestos curtains, marble stairs, leather chairs, marble floors, and a new indirect lighting system. The contractor for the project was C.M. Thompson.
With his purchase of the building and all of the renovations, Woodin commented that “Towanda will have a play house of which she may well be proud. Local theatre patrons can come to the new theatre and have the satisfaction of knowing that they have accommodations that are those of city patrons and also be assured that the movies shown are the latest and best releases.”
The entire interior of the building was changed. Nothing was left but the walls of the original Hale’s Opera House, built 1887. Now the new Keystone Theatre became the “most beautiful playhouse within a wide radius,” as The Daily Review newspaper announced the grand opening (around Nov. 2, 1921). With alterations costing more than $70,000 the old structure was turned in to a “thing of grandeur.”
In addition, “the most up-to-date switchboard in the country” was being used. It was fitted with 12 dimmers, allowing practically any electrical effect desired in any part of the house. The stage lighting was said to be 20 times more powerful than in the old house. There were red, white and blue border and footlights with stage pockets all around the stage. A big spotlight was placed in the balcony, as well.
Movies with sound, known as “talkies,” arrived in the summer of 1928 with Woodin signing a contract to bring the new technology to the Keystone. A revolution in the movie world and the Keystone’s manager was keeping up with the time.
The theatre continued to be home to live performances and Woodin recalled, in a Dec. 22, 1928 edition of The Daily Review, the old days at the theater when Diamond Jack and his medicine show with a Chinese magician and riflemen came to his theater. He also noted the Kickapoo Indian Sagwaw Medicine show that prescribed tapeworm medicine along with magic soap.
His recollection also included the memory of “Lady Audley’s Secret” when the villain pushed the victim into the well and stated, “Dead men tell no tales,” with the tramp comedian, hiding behind the wall, jumping out to announce, “Yes, but live ones do.”
Woodin spoke of Jennie Roach, the Towandian who played the piano and, claimed Woodin, “made as much music as a complete orchestra.”
Woodin was proud that Towanda was thought of as a good show town by the traveling attractions, giving reason for the “best on tour” to stop by and perform. The Chicago Marine Band, the Kilties and the John Phillips Sousa Band played at the Keystone annually.
Circuses also stopped by with performers like Pawnee Bill, Buffalo Bill, Leon Scribner and Charles Lee’s Great London Shows. Woodin’s wife, Lizzie Allen, also performed on her roller skates. Minstrels, cast with local residents, took to the stage with performances coming from the St. Agnes Minstrels, George Boyle’s Minstrels with Peany McGill doing his blackface monologue and Raymond Lewis, Frank Kline and Billy Woodin singing “Let Me Take My Place at Home Again.”
In 1925, Woodin retired from his Keystone manager’s job and left Towanda when M.E. Comerford sold his chain of theaters to Paramount-Publix. He returned, however, in 1928 to once again manage the Keystone. And, again, he had plans for changes. He reduced the ticket prices. Children would be admitted for 10 cents and adults for 25.
On Oct. 21, 1929, William L. Woodin resigned, announcing his retirement would be effective in mid-November. He and his wife planned to spend the winters in Florida and their summers at their cottage on the Susquehanna River. His interests extended beyond the theater. He was one of the earliest members of the Towanda Rotary Club and later became a member of the Towanda Lions Club. He was also one of the founders of the Towanda Chamber of Commerce.
To further explain the Comerford connection, Michael E. Comerford was a key player in the movie industry in the United States in the 1920s and 30s. He was the president and general manager of the Comerford Theaters, Inc., one of the first cinema chains in Pennsylvania. His company once owned and operated 78 theaters, mainly in eastern Pennsylvania but with a few in New York and Maryland, including the Paramount and the Capitol cinemas.
The Keystone Theatre history marches on. The Anniversary Celebration Committee welcomes anyone with information about people involved with the theater or remembrances regarding the theater. Please call the Bradford County Regional Arts Council at 570-268-2787 or email Jennifer Swain or Mary Williams at email@example.com.
In September 2012, the Bradford County Regional Arts Council (BCRAC) will host a series of events celebrating the 125th Anniversary of Hales Opera House (Keystone Theatre), which BCRAC has owned and operated since 1988. 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 www.bcrac.org or www.facebook.com/BCRAC.
Irma Henson is a member of the Keystone Theatre 125 Anniversary Celebration Committee and a former board member of the Bradford County Regional Arts Council.