Connellsville's Porter Theater in class by itself
Editor's Note: This is the final of a six-part series on old Fayette County theaters. Connellsville's Edwin S. Porter Theater is named for a Connellsville native who was an early motion-picture film innovator. Among Porter's cinematic accomplishments was 1903's “The Great Train Robbery” — the first dramatic film to tell a scripted story using several different locations and many actors.
Most Connellsville residents don't realize there is a lovely old-fashioned theater in town — one seating more than Scottdale's performing-arts center but less than the State Theatre in Uniontown.
Over the past several years there has been a major metamorphosis of the 800-seat auditorium at Connellsville Community Center on East Fairview Avenue. The building was constructed as Connellsville High School in 1916.
When the project began, the auditorium — now named the Edwin S. Porter Theater and Performing Arts Center — was dingy, dusty and in total disarray. Peeling paint, cracked plaster and bare 60-watt light bulbs greeted contractors. The room was used for storage.
Today, the Porter Theater has a state-of-the-art sound system and lighting that complement the beauty of the color-coordinated walls, striped window dressings and plush stage curtain. The theater — indeed, the entire building — is warm and snug, thanks to a new heating system. An elevator accommodates the handicapped.
The wooden theater seats are original. Although some are cracked, they are fixable — a project for the future, said Gary Barker, community center maintenance contractor.
Only the downstairs seating (capacity of 550) is in use. The balcony has been deemed safe by inspectors, but its railing is too low for today's government regulations. Plans are in the process to bring it into compliance, Barker said.
The Porter Theater's transformation was envisioned many years ago by former Connellsville Councilwoman Chris Wagner, who recently died. Wagner convinced her fellow council members to set aside annual funds to plan for the renovation. Wagner, however, didn't seek re-election, and the project fell by the wayside.
The goal was resurrected several years later when city officials agreed to use Connellsville's annual state Community Development Block Grant to fund the work. Ralph Wombacker was then director of the Connellsville Redevelopment Authority, which has administered the block-grant program since the 1970s.
Wombacker retired in 2007, and Michael Edwards was named redevelopment authority director. Over the years, more than $500,000 in block-grant cash was used to renovate Porter Theater.
Also promoting the project was Fayette County Cultural Trust, of which Edwards was — and still is — president. Since the project's beginning, the trust worked hand-in-hand with the city to develop the Porter Theater. The trust raised $10,000 and also obtained a $10,000 grant from Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau to pay for the theater's window dressings and stage curtain.
Porter Theater is in a historic building. Built in 1916, the structure replaced Cameron School as Connellsville High School. If one listens quietly, he or she possibly can hear ghost sounds of choirs, band concerts, plays and graduation ceremonies; the community center served as the city's high school until Connellsville Joint High School (now Connellsville Junior High) was constructed in the 1950s.
The community center today is linked to the city closer than ever. The city assumed control of the East Fairview Avenue building several months ago after it fell on hard times. Most of the community center's clients were social-service agencies that depend on government grants — cash that has dwindled drastically in recent years.
Eyes on the future
Barker works closely with Lori Kosisko, community center administrative contractor, trying to develop the refurbished theater. City Councilman Greg Ritch, director of recreation and public buildings, is involved. Fayette County Cultural Trust, comprising of a volunteer board headed by Edwards, also has input.
Barker and Kosisko said the Porter Theater has had some use since its refurbishment.
Conn-Area Catholic School uses it for the students' annual musicals; “Annie” was performed there recently. Dancing-school recitals, movie matinees, concerts and other events have used the venue as well.
Barker and Kosisko, though, say the theater's full potential is far from realized. They have high hopes, though.
At least two beauty pageants are scheduled this year, said Barker, who is working hard to lure comedians to the Connellsville stage as well.
Scott Blasey, lead singer of the Pittsburgh-based band The Clarks has agreed to perform a benefit concert in his hometown's Porter Theater.
“Things are looking up,” Barker said.
Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.