Visiting the theater in Fayette County was a thrilling experience in the 'good old days'
Editor's Note: This is the first of a six-part series on old-fashioned theaters in Fayette County. In the early 1900s — and until the early 1970s — live shows and films were savored in fancy downtown theaters tricked out with the gold trim of the Gilded Age or art deco of the 1930s. Going to the theater back then was a weekend ritual enjoyed by people of all ages.
Moviegoers today find comfort in convenient multi-screen multiplexes which offer as many as a dozen films. In small, utilitarian screening rooms, patrons view the magic of Hollywood and independent filmmakers, crunching popcorn and sipping soft drinks, oblivious to their surroundings.
Times sure have changed.
In the early 1900s — and until the early 1970s — live shows and films were savored in fancy downtown theaters tricked out with the gold trim of the Gilded Age or art deco of the 1930s. Going to the theater back then was a weekend ritual enjoyed by people of all ages.
Kids eagerly awaited weekly matinee serials, like Flash Gordon and Tarzan, which ended with a cliffhanger sure to lure them back the next weekend. In the evenings, couples — and those seeking girlfriends or boyfriends — donned their best attire and headed to the theater.
Theaters were everywhere
Back then, even small towns had movie theaters. Fayette County was no exception — even small boroughs like Fairchance, Dunbar and Masontown had entertainment to offer in the pre-television era.
The county's largest municipalities — Uniontown and Connellsville — boasted multiple venues that featured live entertainment as well as movies.
Older Connellsville residents remember the Soisson and Orpheum theaters and their fancy marquees. The Soisson was on Crawford Avenue downtown; the Orpheum, on North Pittsburgh Street (near Higbee's Insurance building).
On Connellsville's South Side, residents enjoyed live shows and silent films at the Colonial Theater. Located at South Pittsburgh and Green streets, the Colonial was one of the first theaters to close after “talkie” movies became popular. In its latter years, the building — sadly — served as a car wash. It was demolished about 20 years ago.
Opera: In Connellsville?
Connellsville also had the Paramount Theater on North Pittsburgh Street and even had an opera house, The Newmyer, which was on Peach Street, close to today's Riverview Apartments highrise.
Uniontown's early venues included the Dixie Theater, which was at Peters and Penn streets, not far from today's CVS Pharmacy. After the theater closed, the building later housed Franklin Furniture Co.
Uniontown's Capitol Theater was on West Main Street near the “Five Corners” veterans monument honoring the birthplace of Uniontown native George C. Marshall, Army chief of staff during World War II. After the Penn closed, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 47 was headquartered in the building for many years. Today the building is empty, but it has been purchased by a physicians' group that plans to renovate it.
The Manos Theater on Main Street in Uniontown was a prime example of 1930s art deco. It featured a grand lounge/smoking room in its basement, and its movie screen could be viewed on the ground floor as well as from several balconies.
Remember the Manos?
Although rundown by the mid-1970s, the Manos continued to show films. It was Fayette County's last downtown movie theater, closing in the mid-1980s. When it shut down, a church purchased the building and held services there for several years before the structure was demolished. Its site is now a parking lot.
In the new millennium, only one Fayette County old-time theater continues to flourish: Uniontown's State Theatre Centre for the Arts. The East Main Street theater stopped showing movies in 1973 and sat idle for a decade. Since the 1980s, various efforts have been ongoing to renovate it, especially since the Greater Uniontown Consortium purchased it in 1987.
Like Westmoreland County's Palace Theatre in Greensburg, the State Theatre — which enters its 10th decade this year — offers concerts, musicals, dance and dramatic performances year round. In 2007, its movie screen came alive again with a classic film series that continues today.
The State was built by Penn Amusement Co. It was designed by architect Thomas W. Lamb. Penn Amusement wanted Uniontown to have a “motion picture palace,” and Lamb fulfilled that wish, designing the building in the 18th-century style of Robert Adams.
State Theatre dates to 1922
The State opened to great fanfare in October 1922. In its early years, flickering silent films were featured, accompanied by live music played on the State's $40,000 Pleubet Master organ.
Movies weren't the State's main attraction in its earliest years. Before the arrival of talking motion pictures, its main venue was live entertainment. In those days, variety shows prevailed — a scattered, multifaceted art form with a rich history.
Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.
Tuesday: Although vaudeville is long gone, it echoes in today's entertainment. Vaudeville was no stranger to Fayette County audiences.