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Porter Theater had its roots in old Connellsville High School

| Wednesday, April 3, 2013, 5:24 p.m.
The Porter Theater is located in the Connellsville Community Center.

The Edwin S. Porter Theater is a Connellsville gem.

The theater in the Connellsville Community Center has undergone a transformation over the years.

While many in the city have helped transform the facility into a theater of which the city can be proud, it all started with the late Christine Wagner, who saw the importance of the theater and its potential.

The theater had its beginnings in the old Connellsville High School on Fairview Avenue, which is now the Greater Connellsville Community Center.

The high school opened in 1916 with a pool, a gymnasium and a large auditorium. There was no need for a library because the Carnegie Free Library was close. The building was later used as a junior high school.

Throughout the years, many students used the school's impressive auditorium for school assemblies and special events, including plays, choral concerts, senior day ceremonies, graduations and more.

When a new Connellsville Area High School opened in 1970, the junior high students moved to the former senior high (now Connellsville Junior High). At this time, the city took over the building, and it officially became the Connellsville Community Center in 1971.

Wagner, who owned a dance studio, opened her first studio in the community center in 1984. She watched as the use of the building declined over the years.

In 2002, she was elected to Connellsville City Council. One of her goals was to restore the auditorium to its former beauty.

Wagner gained the support of fellow council members at the time. Funds were designated toward the project, and some progress was made.

Several years after her term in office, the refurbishment got under way as the Connellsville Redevelopment Authority partnered with Fayette County Cultural Trust to guide the project.

Work included a new elevator, plaster on crumbling walls, painting, window treatments, new state-of-the-art lighting and sound system, new heating and air-conditioning system, and new projection system and screen.

In the autumn of 2010, the Fayette County Cultural Trust held a fundraiser with help from the Wagner family and in Christine's honor in the State Theatre in Uniontown. The money was designated for the final phase of the auditorium project, including a new stage curtain. Additional money came from a grant awarded by the Fayette County Hotel Grant Fund. The final upgrades were complete, and the auditorium was ready to host a variety of events.

The goal had been attained; efforts had resulted in a spectacular facility for the city. An engineer determined the balcony was sound, and the 800-seat auditorium, built nearly 100 years ago, had become a magnificent, eye-appealing, welcoming theater. The upgrade was complete, and plans were made to showcase the illustrious theater by scheduling events of many kinds.

This landmark building that houses spectacular theater on its second floor was designed by the renowned architectural firm of W.G. Eckles of New Castle. It was constructed of steel in the shape of an “E,” with a facade of sandstone and raked red brick.

As the final upgrades were finished and the auditorium was ready to host a variety of events, it was decided the theater should be named the Edwin S. Porter Theater for a Connellsville native who was a pioneer in filmmaking.

Edwin Stanton Porter was born in 1870 and lived in Connellsville until he was 23.

In research done by Karen Hechler, president of the Connellsville Area Historical Society, she found that Porter's father and uncles were involved in small businesses such as furniture production and undertaking. Connellsville was on the brink of a great growth period. The cultural forces were churches, schools and the local newspaper.

Rarely did touring theater groups appear until the Newmyer Opera House opened in 1881. Porter was 11 by then. Some of the dramas on the stage included “Camille,” “The Count of Monte Cristo,” “Uncle Tom's Cabin,” “Peck's Bad Boy” and “Daniel Boone.” These were early influences that would set Porter on a path to become successful for “filmed theater.”

Porter left Connellsville around 1896 to work for his childhood idol, Thomas Edison, which is how he became associated with and known for movies, including “The Great Train Robbery.”

There is much more information about Porter, written by Hechler, in an early issue of Connellsville Crossroads magazine in autumn 2009. In 1992, the Connellsville Historical Society had dedicated a historical marker to Edwin S. Porter on the former Cameron School lot.

“Since its restoration, the theater has been used for GED graduation ceremonies, day care graduation ceremonies, concerts, Conn-Area Catholic School's annual fall fundraiser and their annual spring play, a Scott Blasey benefit concert for the Community Center. The Ballet LaFayette brought ‘The Nutcracker Ballet' to the theater during the first year of ‘It's a Connellsville Christmas,' a Downtown Connellsville two-day event; the Rotary Club of Connellsville hosted guests from abroad and served a catered dinner; and companies have used the theater for their workshops and conferences,” said Lori Kosisko, administrative contractor at the community center.

“The new projector and projection screen is being used by the Connellsville Recreation Board to show free family movies to the public, and it can be used by others who rent the theater for presentations and conferences,” Kosisko added. “The theater seats 540 people on the main floor and is available for rental.”

A benefit Christmas Beauty Pageant with 45 contestants was held recently and was very successful, Kosisko said.

For more information on the theater, call 724-626-0300.

Nancy Henry is a freelance writer.

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