Lititz’s early movie theatres
Many remember the old Lititz Theatre, which I wrote about extensively back in November 2011 in this newspaper. From 1935 to 1964, it served the community both young and old.
However, this wasn’t the first time movies were shown in Lititz. Here, as they say, is “the rest of the story.”
My research shows that moving pictures in Lititz first began in the early 1900s with a railroad train that zoomed toward a group of people in a local Sunday school room. This caused screams of fright to come from the building. The locomotive, however, was projected on a screen, and was the very first “movie” shown in town. It was operated by a traveling demonstrator who stopped just long enough to run a group of short reels and was, most likely, the first person to entertain the people of Lititz with moving pictures.
Then, circa 1908, a gentleman named Dan Cohic began showing moving pictures in what was once the Malta Building on East Main Street in Lititz.
Joseph Pierson, brother of Senator H. J. Pierson, was also an early pioneer of movies in Lititz when he furnished a building on North Broad Street with seats, a stage, and a projector which opened for business Saturday, Feb. 20, 1909. This building sat to the left of the Park View Hotel, and was named the Home Theatre.
Note: through the years, many Lititz historians referred to this building as the Dome Theatre; however, after scouring through 30 years of old Lititz newspaper records, not one reference or mention of a “Dome Theatre” could be discovered. Could this name be a slight misinterpretation that has been perpetuated all of these years?
Around this same time, a gentleman from Lancaster rented Rudy’s Hall on East Main Street, and began to show films on the second floor. In March 1910, Franklin Emig became the manager, but his accidental death put a stop to shows at this location until a gentleman named Jack Trivets continued with them a short time later, until the business failed.
In October 1909, Pierson sold the Home Theatre to J. F. Stoner. Then, in January 1911, this theatre moved to a larger facility, the second floor of Rudy’s Hall, and renamed Dreamland Theatre. For a year or so prior, piano players enlivened performances, and an occasional act or two of vaudeville, mostly from Lancaster, helped to attract crowds.
In 1914, Hiram Holtzhouse bought out Stoner and immediately erected a frame building at the rear of Rader’s Cigar Store on Main Street. This location flourished for many years. “Birth of a Nation” was shown at the Dreamland on Saturday, Jan. 18, 1919, with Hackman’s full orchestra providing live music written especially for the picture.
After Mr. Holtzhouse retired, Charles Rosenberg resumed showing movies there. In July 1919, James Peters, who owned the Lititz Candy Company, bought the Dreamland from Rosenberg. Evening admission ranged from 20 to 25 cents. By November 1919, the Dreamland was under the ownership of K. & A. Picture Company. A new and better screen was installed, along with renovations which improved the building. Shortly thereafter, the name was changed to the Paramount Theatre. For many years it flourished, and on Saturday, July 31, 1920, the Paramount showed a moving picture entitled “The Lititz Pretzel Industry,” which was repeated due to popularity. Eventually, even this theatre closed down, ending movies in Lititz.
A few years later, Harry Wertsch, along with several Main Street businessmen, came up with the idea to attract people to their stores by projecting short comedies and advertising slides on the walls of several buildings. With a 16-millimeter projector, they entertained customers with the likes of Mickey Mouse and Charlie Chaplain. The front wall of what was then the Spacht building (now Rudy’s Hall) was one of the locations used for a screen. When the crowds watching the comedies grew to such proportions that they presented an impediment to traffic, the merchants moved the projector to a safer location.
From a window of the old Sturgis House, Lititz resident Homer Hackman projected films on the walls of the old Burkholder Garage along Main Street, as hundreds of people gathered to watch the short comedies and read the ads of the merchants that supported the show. Due to the expense in obtaining the films, coupled with the fact that inclement weather made the renting of films a financial risk, the shows were soon stopped.
Then, in the spring of 1930, Paul Furlow and Harry Willis, students of the Millersville State Teachers College (now Millersville University), rented the William Enck building and ran a series of silent films. The children of Lititz were so enthusiastic over these picture shows that the operators were forced to run two shows on Friday night and three on Saturday in order to accommodate those who came to watch. A Victrola accompanied the action. Sadly, after only seven weeks, the partnership between Furlow and Willis disbanded, and once again moving pictures in Lititz ceased until the summer of 1934, when members of the American Legion Garden Spot Post 56 began outdoor movies in Lititz on a larger scale.
The Legionnaires set up for crowds who gathered on what was then the West Lincoln Avenue Athletic Field. It was the very first “modern talking picture theatre” in Lititz, as well as the first open-air motion picture “theatre” in Lancaster County, and was managed and presented by James S. Gerhart, who ran the Roxy Theatre in nearby Shillington. Admission was set at 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children. The first movie that was to be shown was on Tuesday, July 3, and was entitled “Melody in Spring.” Bleachers which were used for baseball games were placed several yards from the screen. Spaces were also left empty for any cars that might show up for the picture, making this the county’s very first drive-in movie theatre, at least in a roundabout way. Thirty minutes before the show was to begin, storm clouds arrived, and it was decided that the kickoff to the outdoor showing of movies in Lititz would be moved to Friday, July 6. All tickets purchased for the original show were honored that day.
The outdoor showings continued throughout the summer; however, the uncertainty of the weather kept this venture from becoming a long-term success. But this drive-in was also a test to see if moving pictures in Lititz would be embraced by the community, for it was during this time that a newly-constructed theatre was highly debated in town.
After months of discussion, it was decided that the Lititz Community Theatre was to be built. This theatre officially opened in March of 1935, and served the community for almost 30 years.
Cory Van Brookhoven is a freelance feature writer for the Record Express, focusing on local history. He is also president of the Lititz Historical Foundation and a member of Lititz Borough Council.