Historic Preservation Feature is a series of articles on the efforts to save and reuse historic buildings, districts and sites in Pennsylvania.

Once upon a time, brightly lit marquees of movie palaces of Pennsylvania’s streets dazzled the eyes of pleasure seekers. Today, the genre, described as possibly “the most dis­tinctly American contribution to archi­tectural history,” is all but extinct. And when a survivor is found, as on Erie’s State Street, the structure is a reminder of the gaudy and the phony, the preposterous and the lovely-hall­marks of the movie era in the state and the nation.


In the spring of 1931, a new movie house, heralded as a “moun­tain of steel, plaster and con­crete,” opened in Erie on the evening of April 10. And lest any be uncertain as to its name, the marquee and the ten-ton sign above it spelled out “War­ner” vertically and horizontally. With­in as without, the audience was be­guiled by an unabashed appeal to the senses, by the setting that was “twice as rich, three times more fanciful than life.” Rapp & Rapp, the architectural firm best remembered for their Para­mount Theatre in New York City, had created in the northwest corner of the state a premier example of the archi­tecture of pleasure, a provincial mas­terpiece in a genre wherein the mes­sage was a compound of the medium and the trappings associated with it in the popular mind.

The motion picture palace, “a thing that comes miraculously seldom,” promised and delivered a commingling of wonder and anticipation; of excitement, glamour and magic; of laughter and music. This “whole dream world come true” was indebted in Erie, as elsewhere, to the efforts of the archi­tects and the decorator, to the recruit­ment and training of a martially in­spired and colorfully uniformed staff taking posts to the cadence of a mighty Wurlitzer organ no less than to a “deluxe” picture policy. The latter emphasized “super-film” productions, tJ1e perfect foils to split-week vaude­ville bills headlined by the premier personalities of the day. Remove one or more of these ingredients and what remains is a movie house-or perhaps today a civic center.

To the visitor, enough remains of the building’s original “magnificence” to validate the 1930s boast of a “grandeur beyond the imagination.” Take the case of the marquee. It is a “lovely surprise,” creating still, when lighted, a sense of wonder, anticipa­tion and excitement that was so much a part of the movie palace mystique. Much the same feelings are engendered by the sight of the free-standing box office in solid bronze. This preposter­ous yet lovely artifact guards the en­trances to the Ticket Lobby, so called because a door in one of the side walls opens to reveal a booth formerly used to sell seats to future attractions.

From this lobby, four doors give access to the spacious Grand Lobby dominated by gold-backed mirrors ex­tending virtually from the floor to the ceiling. The original intent, not lost upon patrons in the 1980s, was to create a paradisiacal atmosphere. And the marbles, ornamental plaster and polychromed pigments of this area no less than the massive chandeliers are indispensable ingredients in the dream­-come-true atmosphere that predomin­ates in the foyers or inner lobbies. Those with seats in the balcony tra­verse a terrazzo floor to the grand staircase, elegant in design and execu­tion, that leads to the Mezzanine Lobby. Or, if they have seats on the ground floor, they make their way into the Orchestra Foyer.

On entering either of these inner lobbies, visitors must pass what are still referred to as the Gentlemen’s and Ladies’ Suites, surely illustrative of what enchantment once meant. Those suites designated for men are divided on the original plans into a smoking room and a men’s toilet: for women into a lounge, cosmetic room and women’s toilet. Virtually none of the original furnishings remain; gone, too, is the red leather on the walls of one of the lounge rooms. However, there are yet handsomely tiled fireplaces in both of the men’s smoking rooms. That on the mezzanine is particularly appealing, dominated as it is by a fan­ciful figure in tile, puffing away on a long-stemmed pipe as he admires the marvels that surround him.

The foyers themselves must have been the decorator’s especial pride, though today the Mezzanine Lobby has been denuded of furniture. Pre­sumably, pieces that once Lined its walls have been carried down to the Orchestra Foyer as replacements for what has been broken beyond the possibility of repair. The gilt rococo chairs and intricately carved tables found on the ground floor today are obviously French in their inspiration. But perhaps the most arresting of the inclusions in either foyer are the oil paintings that still decorate the walls. Eleven in number. the canvases depict women with fans, baskets, letters or babies; men pitching horseshoes or fighting in a country street. Their artistic value is perhaps negligible­ – subjects like a baby’s first steps or children blowing soap bubbles being nothing less than cloying – but their very presence is yet another atmos­pheric bid to ensnare the susceptible.

Doors from the foyers open onto the balcony and the orchestra to reveal the fantasyland that is the auditorium. Under its spell, a local reporter wrote on the theater’s opening: “Much more than an acre of pure gold and silver leaf was used to color and impart just the right touch of individuality and attractiveness …. Here you will find the walls like sheets of molten gold and silver suffusing softly the varie­gated lights that cast their glow through this truly palace of films.” Nor is the import of the writer’s prose lost on today’s patron, who can yet marvel at the “tones of antique gold and silver” that predominate in the treatment of the walls.

Focus of attention is, of course, the proscenium opening with its attendant orchestra pit. Some seventy feet from wall to wall, this opening is set off by a house curtain as well as by elaborate draperies, which play their parts in making the interior “so breathlessly beautiful, so attractive, so suffused with grandeur and magnificence that it tests the extent of the imagination.” Once drawn, the curtain discloses the original “hippodrome” stage. This area, together with the wings, dressing rooms and rehearsal space, was con­structed with utility – not effect – in mind.

Before considering the Warner as a performance hall as well as a first-run movie house, it might be helpful to look at the staff as a part of the movie palace’s reality. On the theater’s open­ing, the payroll numbered upwards of fifty with James (Jimmy) Totman, a one-time movie house doorman, as its manager. Together with an assistant, he presided over four cashiers, six pro­jectionists (including two relief men), a stage crew consisting of a stage hand and a refrigeration engineer, three doormen. and some fifteen ushers who numbered a footman in their ranks. Additionally, there was a cleaning crew of ten or more, two porters and two artists responsible for the Warner’s elaborate promotional displays both within and without. No wonder, then, that the brightwork shown so fiercely or that the 25 thousand light bulbs were so carefully tended when they needed replacing.

In 1937, Manager Totman was promoted and transferred to the War­ner zone headquarters in Pittsburgh. Kenneth (Ken) Grimes. who had the distinction of being an Army reserve officer, became the manager. Under him, the ushers took on a decidedly martial appearance in their dark blue jackets and lighter blue trousers. From a locker room above U,e Ticket Lobby, they were led in a military manner through the Grand Lobby to their posts in the auditorium. To those who remember them, they were the personification of Ute youth of Erie­ – brave, true and acne free. Yet for all the admiration the ushers provoked, theirs was a sometimes onerous call­ing, especially during the Saturday children’s shows when the theater was said to resemble a “jungle.” Then, too, they went into harm’s way for no more than twenty-five cents an hour, their week’s wages amounting perhaps to as much as eight dollars. Alas, alack, their numbers soon thinned only to be swelled by that latecomer-the usher­ette. By the late 70s, ushers and usher­ettes had all but vanished, leaving the ticket holder to find his own seat.

At the high noon of the movie palace era, yet another member of the theater staff to be reckoned with was the theater organist. On the Warner’s opening and in a number of return engagements, the man at the console was Bernie Armstrong, described as the foremost organist for Warner Brothers in the state. A program that survives from the first evening indi­cated that Armstrong was featured early and late, performing an organ march as well as what was described as an “organ-logue” and an exit march. For the next several months, in an­nouncing what the papers called the “supplementary program,” mention was always made of the organ and of the performer at its keyboard – Armstrong or perhaps Johnny Mitchell, another Pittsburgh-based musician.

Erieites best recall one of their own, Tony Conti, who took over in the 40s and played into the 1950s. They recall, too, a time when the Warner organ could be heard on their radios; in point of fact, regularly scheduled broadcasts originating from a booth in the theater were once a feature of Erie life. However, in the 50s the mighty Wurlitzer fell silent. And though the console and pipes were left in place, they were viewed as obsolescent appendages, scarcely worth their keep. Then, in 1969, Stanley­Warner Corp., then the building’s owners, gave the American Theatre Organ Enthusiasts, Western Reserve Chapter, permission to remove the instrument. Today it can be seen and heard at the Gray’s Armory, Cleveland, Ohio. Erie audiences who patronize the Warner today must make do with an occasional organ record, scarcely a substitute for the magic of a Tony Conti performing in person for his public.

The publicity promulgated at the theater’s opening made the point that the Warner was “built from the ground up as a talking motion picture house.” The wizardry of the man at the organ, the courtesies rendered by the staff, the wonders to be glimpsed in the lob­bies and the auditorium itself created an indispensable sense of privilege and expectancy. Their not so subtle pres­ence made a less than satisfying film unthinkable, nor were audiences dis­appointed in Mutiny on the Bounty, Casablanca, Going My Way or The Greatest Show on Earth – to name only a handful of the motion pictures the Warner hosted in its vintage years.

However, by the 1970s the very factors and stimuli that had brought the motion picture palace into being­ – locally and on the national scene – had either vanished or seemingly lost their relevancy. Erie’s Warner Theatre, re­duced to the estate of a motion pic­ture house, seemed not unlike a dino­saur whose hour had come. Then, on June 15, 1977, the Warner closed fol­lowing the showing of House of Wax. Cinemette Theatres, then the owners, had sold the venerable building to the state. The Erie Civic Center Authority took over in August, announcing a policy of live attractions; and since 1977 the Warner has welcomed sym­phony orchestras. ballet companies and rock groups, not to mention newsworthy personalities moonlight­ing on the lecture circuit.

The theater’s devoted fans from years past applauded the structure’s becoming the site of the Erie Phil­harmonic’s concerts no less than the opportunities now available to wit­ness, in person, a variety of concert artists. However, they kept wonder­ing and asking if, in fact, the Warner would show films again and under what circumstances. Their persistent queries convinced Ross Hall, the first managing director of the Civic Center, and his assistant, Mrs. Meg Tunney. to institute a summer film classics pro­gram-now in its fourth successful season. Yearly, Erie residents have a chance to see motion pictures like Yankee Doodle Dandy, Grand Hotel, Meet Me in St. Louis or Adam’s Rib, and to view them in the setting en­visioned as ideal for their display by the film producers of yesterday.

Today’s audiences, whether seeing the films in the Warner auditorium for the first or the umpteenth time, have a rare opportunity to experience some­thing of the movie palace’s reality, and this despite the fact that they are not shown to their seats by one of a corps of ushers or captivated till picture time by the artistry of Tony Conti at the organ. To complete the movie palace, to give it not a little of its authority, there need be not only the trappings already celebrated as indispensable but the presence of the Warner concert or­chestra in the pit and vaudevillians treading the hippodrome stage.

That story, at least as told by some of the city’s old timers, begins with the appearance of Dick Powell. then making his mark as the MC of the Stanley Theatre, Pittsburgh. Tn the popular memory, Powell was on hand to preside over the Warner’s opening along with one or more of the Warner brothers. Unfortunately, the papers of the day do not substantiate their appearance. Nor was there a stage show that first evening or for some months to come. What was announced in the daily papers as the “supplemen­tary program” consisted of organ solos together with a variety of short film subjects.

Then, in September 1931, Powell did make a guest appearance, to be followed in October by Horace Heidt and his Californians. What one or the other thought of the backstage facili­ties is unknown, though presumably they were pleased to find four floors of dressing rooms served by a conven­iently located elevator. Certainly the architects had created with the per­former in mind, for the backstage boasted not alone dressing, work and rehearsal rooms but a strictly functional stage. Thus it is not surprising to find the press announcing that the Warner would initiate a vaudeville season on November 8.

The names of those who figured in the five “big” acts appearing four times daily are mostly unknown to­day, with the possible exception of Bob Hope. Booked early in November, his act, the “Antics of 1931,” con­sisted of Hope sitting downstage on a barrel telling stories, at least according to a former pit musician. Then, on December 5, seven-not five-acts were announced. Dick Powell was on the bill again, crooning popular songs. So, too, was Joe Penner in what was de­scribed as an “hilarious” act. Among their support were twelve “Sunkist Beauties,” who pleased with their dancing and their “daring.” Certainly the price seemed right, at least for Powell’s visit: twenty-five cents from 12 to 1 P.M.; thirty-five cents from 1-6 P.M.; evenings sixty cents. At all hours, children fifteen cents.

However, it must have become evident to the management in the first weeks of the new year that split-week vaudeville bills, introduced with such fanfare only months earlier, were no longer paying their own way. Or so it would seem from a press announce­ment to the effect that, beginning March 3, live acts would appear Thurs­day through Saturday, only. And in deference to the pocketbooks of theatergoers, the admission charge for evenings was reduced from sixty to fifty cents. These economy measures notwithstanding, in scarcely more than two weeks time the newly instituted regimen of “deluxe” acts supported by the “Warner Concert Orchestra” was abandoned in favor of a “New Deluxe Picture Policy.” The Warner was left, then, with but a single performer, Tony Conti at the mighty Wurlitzer.

Erie audiences had not lost their taste for vaudeville, only their ability to pay for it with any regularity in depression-haunted America. And de­spite its absence, they continued to associate the U1eater with live enter­tainment: to them the Warner was the home of the stars – on the stage no less than on the screen. The conviction was shared by Robert (Bob) Bowman, whose association with the structure dates from its opening, when he served as the chief of service – head usher. Subsequently, he was named the assis­tant manager and then sent by Warner Brothers to manage theaters for them in other parts of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. In 1948, he returned to Erie to manage the Warner, deter­mined among other priorities to revive live entertainment.

Toward realizing his ambition, he joined forces with Francis J. Schlind­wein, sixteenth pastor of St. Boni­face’s, a Catholic parish in the hinter­lands of Erie County. “Father” was a cleric badly in need of a new physical plant for his parish school. He lacked only the funds to make his building program a reality. What he did possess was capital of a sort – his friendship with show business personalities of the day, whose talents “Father” was con­vinced he could enlist on behalf of his “kids.” Thus began his seventeen-year career as a clerical impressario, as the sponsor in the 40s of name bands ap­pearing on the Warner stage – Sammy Kaye and Tommy Dorsey, among others. In the 50s, abetted by Bow­man, Schlindwein concentrated on at­tracting names like Tony Bennett, Nat “King” Cole and Sammy Davis, Jr., who appeared as headliners in what amounted to vaudeville bills. The glamour and the excitement envisioned on the Warner’s opening were once more tangibly in evidence – if only for a limited engagement.

Actually, the revival of vaudeville­-like entertainment on the Warner stage dates from 1941, when the Times (newspaper) Publishing Company, sponsors of what came to be called the Times Neediest Fund Christmas Show, decided on the theater as the ideal sight for their venture. And from that year until 1968, the show became an Erie institution, even as it met the sponsor’s expectations. In 1964, for example, the evening cleared $13,000; however, four years later the show netted only $159.12. indicative that this species of entertainment, at least in its “live” formal, had lost its draw­ing power locally.

As representative as any of the Times‘s shows appears to be that booked in 1944. In all, some 5,100 persons attended the evening’s two performances headlined by Milton Berle, the performer whose weekly television program in U1e 1950s was to all but empty the Warner on Tuesday nights. Supporting him were an Irish tenor, a number of novelty acts, an – ­shades of days gone by – a dog act. Providing the music for this mixed bag of entertainers was a pit orchestra con­sisting of four sax, four brass, and three rhythm men together with a leader. At least one of the musicians deserves to be singled out. His name is Al DeMarco and he was not only a member of the Warner Concert Or­chestra in 1931, but he played in every one of the Times‘s shows.

The demise of these shows did not bring about the end of live entertain­ment completely. For in the 1960s and early 70s, the American Theatre League offered a potpourri of legiti­mate plays and musicals in the Broadway mold. However, what was integral to the making of a movie palace had all but vanished: the colorfully uni­formed staff, the seemingly inexhaust­ible supply of feature films to facilitate twice weekly changes of bill as well as the glamour and sophistication that went with the presence of top acts. The Warner, conceived as a movie palace, had become a movie house.

To be sure, the physical structure remained intact as did some of the original furnishings, but in themselves these could not sustain the “palace” image or impact, an aggregate of that seen, that felt and that experienced in a particular setting. In I 972, Bob Bow­man, associated with the Warner for forty years, retired and with him went not a little of the theater’s memory, not a few of its triumphs and a good deal of the showmanship it stood for in the Erie mind. And though the state’s purchase of the building guaran­teed the Warner’s physical survival, it could not turn back the clock nor was the intent that it should.

The Warner was destined to become part of a civic center complex. With this role in mind. extensive renovation has been undertaken by the Common­wealth, including a new roof and general contracting work so that the building will comply with current safety and building codes. In turn, the Civic Center intends to refurbish the interior, bringing back the theater’s original elegance. But, the real magic of the movie palace depends upon the complementary presence of uniformed ushers, a house organist and split-week vaudevillians, without which today’s audience cannot fully appreciate a setting in which dreams invariably came true. Still, Erie’s Warner Theater stands to challenge our imaginations, to carry us back to a time when a movie theater was more than simply a theater – when it was truly a palace.


John L. Marsh, a professor of English at Edinboro State College, was instrumental in securing a grant from the Pennsylvania Humanities Council for a series of public programs in the sum­mer and fall of 1981. The life and times of the Warner Theatre, which is listed on the state Inventory of Historic Places and is currently under consideration for inclusion in the National Register, was the subject of one of those programs.


Jerry L. George was responsible for all photographic work connected with the article.