Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Isaac Charles Mishler (1862-1944) stepped off the train in Altoona, Blair County, on August 6, 1881, just before his nine­teenth birthday, with a suitcase crammed full of ambition. Like thousands of men from across America and throughout Europe, Mishler was drawn to the booming city founded and sustained by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company (PRR). Mishler spent the next year or two laboring as a rail car builder, but he had other dreams.

That dream, in part, became the Mishler Theatre, the cultural centerpiece of a blue-collar railroad community and a fine example of Beaux Arts-style architecture. Mishler’s achievement brought recognition from the National Historic Register of Historic Places for the theater in 1973, a state historical marker for him in 2003, and plans for a centennial celebration in 2006. Restored in many aspects to its original opulence, the story of the Mishler is one that literally rose from the ashes of a disastrous fire that destroyed the building only eight months after it seated its first audiences.

The Mishler legacy in America begins in 1749, when a ship, ironically named the Phoenix, docked in Philadelphia carrying a group of Swiss-German Mennonites, inducting Isaac’s great ­great-grandfather Jacob Mishler (circa 1733-1810). Isaac Mishler was born in Cocalico Township, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, on September 30, 1862, the son of Isaac (1827-1883) and Catherine (Withers) Mishler (1832-1905). Before that, Isaac Sr., a carriage builder in Reamstown, Lancast­er County, was widowed when his first wife, Catherine Ann (Miller), died. Isaac Jr.’s siblings included Catherine, Abraham Lincoln, and Hannah and half-brothers, John M. Mahlon, and Henry.

His cousin, John D. Mishler (1847-1929), likely encouraged Isaac’s interest in entertainment. John, a theatrical manager for forty years, was best known as manager of the Reading Academy of Music (later the Rajah Theatre and today the Sovereign Performing Arts Center), one of the first theaters built in Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh by John’s father Joseph. The theater, opened in 1872, occupied the second and third floors of Reading’s tallest building, in which Mishler’s dry goods store, the Globe, had been established in 1868 on the ground floor. His innovative ideas about retailing included being the first in Reading to buy newspaper advertising by the column. He promoted baseball and was considered generous, especially by many poor children who received Christmas dinners or free shows at his theater.

In 1867, the Berks County Democrat erroneously reported John Mishler’s “Death on the Sea.” His return ocean voyage from the Exposition Uni­verselle in Paris was delayed, owing to his ship’s mechanical problems. When rumors of his death were proven false, an elated community greeted his return with a brass band. Mishler was often in demand to speak to citizens eager to learn about his visit to Paris. By 1873, he established the Mishler Theatrical Circuit of Eastern Pennsylvania and later controlled sixteen theaters in nine cities.

Isaac’s father had also set a good example with his carriage business, as co-owner of a freight forwarding business, star mail routes between Lancaster and adjoining counties, and an active role in county politics. As a teenager, the younger Isaac had the distinction of becoming the first employee of Frank W. Woolworth (1852-1919), founder of the famous store chain, established 1881 in Lancaster. When Mishler later made trips to New York to book theatrical talent and called on Woolworth, the “King of the Five and Dime” was known to adjourn meetings to see him.

By 1882, Isaac Mishler had opened a cigar store on a downtown Altoona street cor­ner. By 1890, he found a better location and added sporting goods. Located near the railroad shops and adjacent to the post office, his shop drew men to gather, play billiards, and talk about baseball. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Altoona enjoyed an enviable reputation as a center for amateur and minor league baseball, including an 1884 flirtation of the Altoona Mountain Citys team with the Union Association, a short-lived major baseball league.

Mishler parlayed store profits to promote professional baseball in Altoona. In 1892, he helped organize the Pennsylvania State League and became one of the first minor league club owners to sell a player contract when catcher Lave Cross (1866-1927) went to buyer Connie Mack (1862-1956), later manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, for fif­teen hundred dollars. Mishler also provided starts for several major league players, including first baseman Jake Virtue (1865-1943), outfielder Socks Seybold (1870-1921) who preceded Babe Ruth as the king of home runs, and center fielder Walter “Steve” Brodie (1868-1935). By 1895, it was obvious, however, that baseball would not fulfill Mishler’s ambitions. A six-day work week, a ban on Sunday games, and no night games made it difficult to attract paying spectators.

In 1891, Mishler married Hollidaysburg native Mary “Mollie” Drass (1860-1932), the eldest child of Jacob Drass, a native of France, and Alice, a native of Ireland. A decade earlier Mollie had been employed as a servant; ironically, the Mishler Theatre’s opening night play featured a charming maid who finds happiness despite her menial tasks. Mollie quietly assisted her husband behind the scenes and her younger sister, Anna B. Drass, served as treasurer of the Eleventh Avenue Opera House, Mishler’s other Altoona theater.

Blair County, barely more than a frontier the first half of the nineteenth century, had little need for entertainment halls. It was not until 1848, that Town Hall, a theater complete with an orchestra pit and two balconies, opened in Holli­daysburg. Near the end of the Civil War, William Rouse and his wife, starring in their own productions,opened Altoona’s first theatre. Not long after, the Louther and Bare Theatre opened.

The Mountain City The­atre, with eighteen hundred seats, opened in February 1888 to great fanfare, but the following year, it was destroyed by fire. On its ashes, the Lyric Theatre, owned by the Keith-Albee Vaude­ville chain, was erected in 1906, but in February 1907 it too succumbed to fire. Other theaters opened, including Lakemont Park Playhouse, “The Theatre in the Woods,” one of America’s first summer playhouses, developed in 1892 by the Logan Valley Railway Company. Seats for the vaudeville and stock company shows were free the first three years, after which center seats cost ten cents each.

It was with Altoona’s Eleventh Avenue Opera House of fourteen hundred seats that Mishler made the leap from tobacconist to theatrical entrepreneur. Opened as a market in 1868, from 1874 it was a dry goods company on the ground floor and a theater on the second and third floors, similar to Reading’s Academy of Music. It was remodeled exclusively as a theater in 1888.

An 1895-1896 program lists John D. Mishler as general manager of the opera house and I. C. Mishler advertised as a cigar merchant, although a city directory lists Isaac Mishler and Charles S. Myers as co-lessees and managers. John Mishler most likely lent his name and his money in 1893 to help his cousin become a theatrical impresario.

Not much later, Isaac Mishler sold his tobacco shop and became manager of the Cambria Theatre in Johnstown. In less than two decades, Mishler rose from railroad laborer to one of Altoona’s most prominent citizens. His success secured a role in banking as a co-founder of Altoona’s Central Trust Company. The origin of his nickname “Doc” Mishler is uncertain; having nothing to do whatsoever with the practice of medicine, he may have garnered the affectionate salutation with his trademark friendliness.

Mishler also managed the Johnstown Opera House; partnered with cousin John D.Mishler to operate the Lyric Theatre in Allentown, Lehigh County, still standing as Symphony Hall; operated the Lyceum The­atre in Paterson, New Jersey; and, with a management team built the State Street The­atre in Trenton, New Jersey.

Fire haunted many theaters throughout the country and the Johnstown Opera House was the first of Mishler’s properties to be destroyed by fire. Sometime after a conflagration in 1903 that killed 602 people at the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago – the country’s worst single building fire – the General Assembly of Pennsylvania outlawed upper-story theaters, directly affecting the Eleventh Avenue Opera House. Mishler decided to close the venue shortly after opening the Mishler Theatre. Ironically, flames destroyed the darkened opera house on June 14, 1907.

In 1903, Mishler hired Philadelphia theater architect Albert E. West­over Sr. to design three theaters: the State Street in Trenton, a theater in Harrisburg where the Lyceum (later the Orpheum Theatre) was built; and the theater in Altoona bearing his name. Traveling with Westover to study great theaters inspired Mishler to bring the most elaborate construction that west central Pennsylvania had ever seen. The construction contract was awarded to P.W. Finn and Company of Altoona, which was working on several other large buildings in the commercial district.

The Mishler Theatre remains as a fine example of early twenti­eth-century architecture, with a solid facade of structural steel, red brick, and Indiana limestone, complimented by a lavish mar­ble interior, ornamental plaster, and two balconies. The building, originally with a capacity of nineteen hundred patrons, was crowned with a limestone balustrade and a heavy, ornamental cornice, closely spaced modillions, and a neoclassical frieze, but they were replaced with simple bands of limestone in the 1960s due to fear that deteriorating pieces could break off and strike pedestrians below.

A reporter for the Altoona Times raved about the welcome addition to the community. “The new Mishler Theatre…is believed to typify the most beautiful, as well as the best, that present times can offer in a home fro theatrical arts. The owner, Mr. Mishler, recognizes in Altoona a splendid future, having much faith in its people and prosperity.” Altoona Mayor Simon H. Walker dedicated the new building with enthusiasm. “Mr. Mishler,” said Walker, ” … should be looked upon as a public benefac­tor who deserves … the warm thanks of the people …. It is impossible, even for those who are not theatregoers, to be insensible to the beauty of the edifice or the importance of it as an ornament to the city.”

On February 15, 1906, fifteen actors, including a twenty-six-year-old, English­born producer and star, Eleanor Robson (1879-1979), touring in Merely Mary Ann,took center stage. For as little as fifteen cents to a top seat price of two dollars, audiences enjoyed an array of stars of the stage, Vaudeville acts, and musical performances. But opening night euphoria faded quickly.

Eight months later, For Her Honor had just closed and among the upcoming shows scheduled – perhaps an unwelcome omen – was The Warning Bell. Just before dawn of October 19, 1906, a fire was discovered in the seven-story Rothert Building across the alley from the theater. The fire leapt across the alley to the Elks Home building next to the theater. Four fire companies fought the blaze, but a shift in wind direction drove the flames toward the Mishler.

Mishler’s extraordinary fire prevention measures included an automatic sprinkler system, fourteen hose plugs, a six-inch water main run to the building, and the most stringent standards possible in the heating and ventilation plant. A steel and asbestos stage curtain, hung by an improved method of construction, automatically closed if a fire occurred on stage. With twenty exits, wide aisles and stairways, and every conceivable fire protection, most thought that the theater was one of the safest in the country.

“It seems entirely impossible to have a fire in the building,” the Altoona Times observed. Mishler’s insurance company, similarly convinced, endorsed a policy insuring the building for less than half it’s value. The fire broke through the small, circular, decorative upper story windows. From there it burned along the ceiling above the sprinklers and lapped at the moorings holding the fireproof curtain. George “Guy” S. Burley, the theater’s business manager, rushed into the building in a futile attempt to save it, but the stage curtain fell and trapped him in the inferno. Arthur B. Clark, city treasurer and businessman happened upon the scene and rescued Burley, preventing any loss of life.

Sirens awakened Mishler who, unaware of the catastrophe, was eating breakfast when a messenger delivered the news. Rushing to the scene, he was first encouraged to see the facade and outer walls stU I standing, but hen he saw the interior – a pile of ash, charred wood, collapsed balconies, and twisted metal – he despaired. Mishler had sunk most of his capital into the underinsured theater. Altoona residents worried that they would never see a theater like the? Mishler again.

By 9:30 that morning, Mishler told a reporter, “Well, I can stand the loss of the theater better than the loss of a leg. I cannot say yet what I will do. All the money I had in the world I put into that house. I do not regard it as a personal loss … It’s a city loss … It was my pride that the old Mountain City had a theatre of which it need not be ashamed …. If I have sufficient money, I will rebuild it at once. I have been a little embarrassed in a financial way owing to the building of the theatre, and for that reason I am not in a position to say whether I can rebuild it myself or not.”

When Mishler did decide to rebuild, the community rallied and offered financial assistance to him. Determined to duplicate the opulence and architectural splendor of the first building, he reassembled the team of architect Albert Westover, contractor P. W. Finn, and most of the same vendors. He did business with local firms where he could – ­painting, carpets, furniture, plumbing, heating, woodwork, lighting and electric, and decorative curtains. He ordered fire sprinklers, ornamental ironwork, art glass, and architectural terra cotta from Philadelphia; mosaic and marble tiling, plate glass, and mirrors from Pittsburgh; fire escapes from Lancaster; fireproof doors from Greensburg; scenery, stage equipment, auditorium chairs, and decorations from Chicago; electric fixtures from Trenton; stage mechanical work from Syracuse; face brick, rubber tiling, and an art curtain from New York; and box seat chairs from Vienna, Austria.

Enhancing the theater’s fire prevention, sashes of incombustible metal were added to the windows where the fire had entered the building. Additional fire hoses were placed throughout the building and a more elaborate sprinkler system was installed. A new asbestos proscenium curtain was hung from steel beams. As long as the stone of the building stood upright, the curtain moorings could no longer fail. “The Mishler is now fortified against possibility of fire by every device that genius has conceived,” the Altoona Times declared.

Construction was delayed one month while an architectural committee, appointed by the walls because he did not believe the insurance adjusters that they were safe. When committee experts convinced Mishler that the walls had not moved even one-eighth inch out of plumb during the fire, time and expense were saved. For two months, workers labored in two twelve-hour shifts, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Just three months after the fire, the Mishler was ready to reopen.

The Altoona Times wrote: “…the magnificent thespian temple will be thrown open to the public more beautiful, more comfortable and more elaborate in its details and appointments than it was … a few months ago.” Other decorative improvements included a gilded dome ceiling adorned with allegorical figures. Undamaged by fire on the facade were Ionic columns of limestone and two life-sized statues-Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy, and Terpsichore, the Muse of Dance.

On the evening of January 19, 1907, a large crowd gathered outside the building. As an orchestra played the “Star Spangled Banner,” the American flag was raised to the top of the theater and Company E of the Pennsylvania National Guard fired three volleys in salute. Respectful silence in the chilly air was succeeded by rousing cheers after a large sign bearing “Mishler Theatre,” prominently located on the front roof of the building, was illuminated for the first time. The phoenix had arisen!

At the same time, a revolutionary new way of viewing the world was sweeping into theaters everywhere. As early as 1906, motion pictures brought great events of the world to the Mishler Theatre, including the San Francisco earthquake; the coronation of King George V as emperor of India; and explorer Freder­ick A. Cook’s conquest of the North Pole. The theater also showed short films by D. W. Griffith and internationally famous travel films produced by Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County, native Lyman H. Howe (1856-1923). In 1912, Mishler installed a massive cooling plant, which made it possible to show movies during the warm summer months.

For the screening of Way Down East, a film starring Lillian Gish, Mishler added a twenty-piece orchestra.

A turning point for professional theatres occurred in 1919. Until then, stage actors received relatively low pay, no compen­sation for rehearsals, and endured unlimited rehearsal time. Stagehands in New York had organized a union in 1910 and playwrights organized the Dramatists Guild in 1912. In August 1919, stage actors organized Actor’s Equity Association and staged a nationwide thirty-day strike, resulting in a loss of millions of dollars for theatres and producers. The professional stage would never be the same.

Many traveling shows became unaffordable for smaller cities, forcing Mishler to schedule more movies. On May 19, 1923, Mishler, then sixty-one years old, announced that he was interested in retiring. On January 9, 1931, the theater was sold to Anast Notopolous, owner of Altoona’s competing Olympic and Palace Theatres. For the following thirty years, the Mish­ler Theatre’s entertainment was mostly movies, with an annual dance school recital and, occasionally, modest touring shows. The Mishlers, enjoying the fruits of their success, sailed on a seven-month voyage in 1924 to visit South America and Europe. Mollie died on January 7, 1932. On August 20, 1935, Mishler married Alice J. Gleason Sweeney, a widow and Johnstown native.

Isaac Mishler enjoyed one last encore in his native Lancaster County. In his seventies and unable to remain idle, he became a lessee and manager of Lancaster’s historic Fulton Opera House, making him the country’s oldest theatre manager at the time. He spent his final years in Altoona, just a short stroll from his beloved theater. During the early afternoon of May 8, 1944, Mishler died at the age of eighty­-two in his residence at the Penn Alto Hotel. The New York Times noted his passing and credited him for amassing “a fortune in the theatre business and … owner of much real estate.” Alice Mishler died in Altoona on July 30, 1956.

By the 1950s, although structurally sound, the Mishler Theatre was showing its age. A fiftieth anniversary effort at beautification in 1956 fell short of raising funds for restoration. Screenings of motion pictures had ended by 1962 and, three years later, plans were announced to raze the building for a parking lot. Faced by the possible loss of an irreplaceable treasure, concerned citizens swung into action.

In 1960, organizers incorporated the Blair County Arts Foundation (BCAF) to serve as an arts advocate, fundraiser, and clearing house for coordinating, scheduling, and promoting cultural events. With the wrecking ball figuratively held over the theater in 1965, twelve area citizens each lent five thousand dollars to the BCAF. The Notopolous estate agreed to sell it to the foundation for $47,500, about 40 percent of its original cost sixty years prior. The BCAF moved into the theater in 1966 and began the task of restoring the theater to its original splendor. In October 1966, a touring children’s the­ater company, Lovelace Theatre of Pittsburgh, was the first to take the stage, playing to a sold-out house.

The following month, the Altoona Community Theatre (ACT) began a more visible role in stimulating interest in the Mishler. ACT’s origin dates to the 1920s when the professional Chicago Stock Company folded and stranded its actors at the Lakemont Park Playhouse. Some of the actors remained in Altoona and helped organize the Altoona Theatre Guild, later the Altoona Little Theatre. In 1948, the thespian group, renamed Altoona Community Theatre, performed in borrowed spaces, including the ballroom of the Penn Alto Hotel, churches, and the local campus of the Pennsylvania State University.

Ascending as the Mishler’s resident theatre company, the troupe debuted in November 1966 with a popular Broadway comedy, Mister Roberts. Andronic “Andy” Pappas (1929-2000), later a popular mayor of Altoona, starred in the title role. Despite the theater’s threadbare carpeting, shabby seats, and unusable balconies, ACT managed a full season into the spring of 1967.

The Great Mishler Theatre Restoration Campaign kicked off in the summer of 1967. Although the $328,000 raised fell short of a $460,000 goal, an additional $60,000 grant from local financial institutions allowed BCAF to begin work by delaying non-critical areas, such as restoration of the second balcony, and concentrating on critical needs. Workers re-gilded and repainted interior ornamentation and reupholstered audience seats. A refur­bished Mishler Theatre once again gleamed when ACT presented The Sound of Music in Marci, 1969.

The Mishler Theatre has also benefited from Pennsyl­vania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) grant programs. In 1979, a $30,000 acquisition and development grant was awarded to the Mishler. The PHMC awarded Keystone Preservation Grants of $20,000 in 1994 and $100,000 in 1996 for interior restoration and improvements.

More than fifty cultural and civic groups have enjoyed the use of the facility since 1966. In 1986, a children’s theatre launched an annual series to attract professional per­formers. The Altoona Symphony Orchestra, graduations, pageants, lectures, and a wide variety of special events have brought back the vision of Isaac Mishler as a house of the people and for the people. Modest professional productions and performers have returned to the stage, while ACT, with a modest budget and local unpaid actors, pro­duce plays and musicals with professional quality. ACT has set up work space and offices just across the alley in the former Elks Home, also restored after the 1906 fire.

William W. Ward, founder of Ward Trucking Company and co-chairman of the restoration campaign, noted during a 1969 gala for the renovated Mishler that the the­atre lacked one decorative feature – a crystal chandelier. In 1970, at a Metro-Goldwyn-­Mayer (MGM) auction in Hollywood, BCAP secretary Eleanore Steckman, two of her relatives, and Jane Novak (1896-1990), a star of the silent screen, searched through three studio sound stages the size of football fields before spotting one chandelier. They were disappointed when actress Debbie Reynolds, collecting movie memorabilia for her Las Vegas museum, outbid Steckman. Novak found another chandelier that now hangs perfectly in the Mishler – one, fittingly, from the set of the 1937 movie Maytime, starring Philadelphians Jeannette MacDonald, Nelson Eddy, and John Barrymore.

“Doc” Mishler’s courageous refusal to be daunted by disaster inspired the commu­nity to hold on to a priceless heritage, an effort that continues to this day. It’s still possible to look out from the stage and see what thousands of entertainers have seen for one hundred years. The Mishler Theatre survives while most palatial theatres of the same era are gone forever. Isaac C. Mishler would no doubt be pleased that Altoona and Pennsylvania are as proud as ever of his legacy.


Now Presenting

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) has undertaken a a year-long Historical Theater Rehabilitation Initiative to aid in the preservation of historic theaters throughout the Commonwealth. The initiative is providing awareness of the essential role that theaters offer in revitalizing downtowns and defining communities. Whether they are restored as theaters or community centers, restaurants, bookstores or church­es, these historic buildings can once again become useful. Theater rehabilitation can spur downtown revitalization by bringing patrons and their spending power back to neighborhoods and restores the excitement found in formerly bustling communities. Since 1994, the PHMC has given more than one million dollars to fund the rehabilitation of historic theaters. The agency is currently involved in partnerships throughout the Keystone State that will result in more successful projects.

For information about this initiative and PHMC grants, tax credits, funding opportunities, workshops, and Pennsylvania’s preservation program , write: Bureau for Historic Preservation, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Commonwealth Keystone Building, Second Floor, 400 North Street, Harrisburg, PA 17120-0093; telephone (717) 783-8946.

On Saturday evening, February 18, 2006, the Blair County Arts Foundation (BCAF) will host a celebration to mark the centennial of the historic Mishler Theatre. For information, write: Blair County Arts Foundation, Suite 206, 1212 Twelfth Ave., Altoona, PA 16601; telephone (814) 949-2787; or visit the Mishler Theatre website.


For Further Reading

Africa, J. Simpson History of Blair County, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1883.

Bernhardt, Sarah and Victoria Tietze Larson. My Double Life: The Memoirs of Sarah Bern­hardt. Albany, N. Y.: State University of New York Press, 1999.

Burns, George. Living It Up: Or, They Still Love Me in Altoona! New York: Putnam, 1976.

Emerson, Robert L. Allegheny Passage: An Illustrated History of Blair County. Wood­land Hills, Calif.: Windsor Publications for the Blair County Historical Society;, 1984.

Mishler, John Diefenbach. Misliler’s Memoirs; Many Mistakes Merely Mentioned. Read­ing: Press of Pengelly & Brother, 1907.

Wertheim, Frank A. Va1deville Wars: How the Keith-Albee and Orpheum Circuits Con­trolled the Big-Time and Its Performers. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Wolf, George A., ed., et al. Blair County’s First Hundred Years: 1846-1946. Altoona: Blair County Historical Society, 1945.


The author thanks former Altoona Area High School teacher Irene Ruschak; Katherine Shaffer, executive director of the Blair County Arts Foundation; Timothy Van Skoyoc, acting director and curator of Blair County Historical Society; Jay Young, city editor of the Altoona Mirror; Sandra K. Stelts, curator of rare books and manuscripts, Paterno Library, The Pennsylvania State University; and Dorothy Scherer and Joan G. Repetto of the Mishler family for their assis­tance in locating sources and photographs for this article.


Fred J. Lauver is assistant editor of Pennsylvania Heritage. He has previously written about the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum (Summer 2000), Somerset Historical Center (Fall 2000), Museum of Anthracite Mining (Winter 2001), and the 175-year-old Woolrich Corporation (Winter 2003). Along with Diane B. Reed, he is a co-author of The Pennsylvania Trail of History Cookbook, and co-edited Keystone of Justice: Pennsylvania Superior Court (2000) by Judge Patrick R. Tamilia and John Hare. A graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and a Vietnam era veteran, his interest in the Mishler Theatre began in 1966 when he made his acting debut on its stage immediately following his hometown’s decision to rescue the building from demolition. During the research for this article, the author discovered a family coincidence. His Swiss-Germnan, fifth-great-grandfather, Johann Balthasar Lauber (1731-1774), arrived in Pennsylvania on the ship Phoenix and settled in Lancaster County in 1751, the same ship and county as Isaac Mishler’s Swiss-German great-great-grandfather Jacob Mishler had traveled two years earlier.