Thirty-year run From opening night in 1935 to closing curtain in ’64, Lititz Theatre was a community treasure

By on November 9, 2011

In the Jan. 11, 1934 edition of the Lititz Record, an op-ed piece was written which contained the headline: “A THEATRE?”

The article went on to state that time and time again, the idea of a community theatre was brought up and discussed, but nothing ever became of this discussion. The writer of the piece thought the idea was a great one, and offered two reasons why.

The first was that it was thought that this would bring additional foot traffic into the town and therefore would benefit the various merchants along Main Street. When this piece was written, movie theatres were already operating in nearby Manheim, Ephrata and Lancaster.

Secondly, the author thought the downtown area of Lititz “would provide a place in town to which our young people could turn for an evening’s entertainment.”

One of the proposed sites he mentioned as a good place to build a theatre was the Bollinger property, which was to go to auction the following month. This building was located on South Broad, near Orange Street. The closer the theatre was to the square, the more expensive the property was, and this was a driving factor in the debate as to whether or not to build it. The column ended with a plea for readers to submit their opinions on the matter, and the Lititz Record promised to publish as many as they could. Two weeks later, the letters started to pour in.

In the Jan. 25, 1934 edition, an anonymous local citizen wrote in that he had pondered over the idea of a theatre in Lititz, and decided to do a little research. He had recently attended a movie at the Manheim theatre and had observed 19 people attending the show on that particular day. Using the law of averages, he had guessed that 20 Lititz residents were there before him, and another 20 would probably attend after he had left. Therefore, he wrote that there was then 60 potential Lititz residents (he also counted himself) that could have patronized their own theatre in their own town. He went on to argue that this number of people attending an out-of-town theatre would have been greater if one took into consideration the amount of people that did not have enough money for gas to drive one town over.

Another letter was published the very next week, on Feb. 1, 1934. A gentleman who signed his name only as “J.W.” wrote in that the potential money that was to be spent on a proposed theatre should rather be spent on a manufacturing business and that building a theatre was a waste. He concluded that “the public would have nothing to show for it’s investment.”

“Not only that,” he added, “but lots of harm could be done to our young folks by witnessing scenes on the screen that should never be shown.”

By the next week, it seemed like every member of the community had an opinion. The headline that week read “Theatre Letters Stir Local Folks,” with many letters on that issue’s editorial page containing views both pro and con. One person who wrote in even volunteered to donate $100 of his own money to get the project started, and assured the public that he knows several other people that will match his gift.

The next week, someone wrote in with the opinion that, “The respectable church-goer of this town, when he wishes to see a movie, goes to Lancaster, and he will probably continue to do so, even if there is a show here.”

The letters continued to come in to the newspaper at a rapid pace, and as promised by the editor, they were published.

As I read over every letter submitted, I noticed that the public as a whole was becoming more favorable toward building a movie house in Lititz. The general tone was that it would be a much desired and heavily patronized place in the community.

Two months later it was proposed that the theatre should be constructed at the Sturgis House on Main Street. The owner of the Manheim Auditorium, William F. Kneller, and the Lancaster Trust Company had apparently struck a deal. It was reported that Kneller had purchased the building and was was just waiting for the final paperwork to go through. He envisioned turning the garage part of the building into the much talked about theatre, and building the entrance on the vacant lot between Hess’s Fruit Market and Lutz’s Meat Market. Lititz was very excited for this proposed new owner and location, and July 6 was the date set for the deal to officially be approved.

At the hearing for the sale, three others offered to pay more than Kneller’s $11,000 offer, so the building went to public sale. The property finally went up for auction in late August. Kneller stopped bidding at $13,000 and was outbid by Lititz resident Dan Withers, who offered $17,100. Withers was then outbid by Harry Chertcoff. Chertcoff was the current owner of movie houses in Elizabethtown and Lancaster, and when the gavel came crashing down, he became the owner for $17,150.

Construction started shortly thereafter, with Chertcoff promising that when complete it will be one of the most modern theatres in the county. The lobby was built through the center of the building, which at the time was Hess’s fruit store, within the Hotel Sturgis property. This lobby was to be fireproof, with the stage measuring 25 feet deep. Two exits were also cut in the back of the stage. The existing windows on the property were filled in with concrete block, and two large exits were built by the alley, and two more in the front. Since it was a movie house, the plans called for no live stage plays to take place. A contest in an effort to name the new theatre was started by Chertcoff, with plans for the children and the community to select just the right name.

The progress continued into November 1934 as contracts were signed by many companies. One such business was the American Heating and Ventilating Company of Philadelphia, which promised a complete change of air inside every 10 minutes.

February 1935 saw the theatre really take shape, and it was announced that this new entity would be called the Lititz Community Theatre. Professor Herbert Beck of Lititz was called upon for advice in an effort by Belgium artist Franz De Merlier to create a painting in the lobby that would depict scenes of local history. This beautiful artwork was entitled “The History of Lititz Through Its Architecture.”

De Merlier, who was associated with the Paramount Decorating Company of Philadelphia, also created a beautiful mural in the auditorium entitled “Toward The Light.” This company also supplied the stage settings, draperies and curtains. In addition, the gorgeous designs on the ceiling which were “designed in the modern manner” were created by Dr. David Brodsky.

In order for the marquee to be erected by the Apex Sign Company of Philadelphia, the ban on overhead roofs and signs was amended by Lititz borough council in late February. It was also revealed by Mr. Utter, the theatre’s manager, that Benjamin Lutz, who owned the meat market next door, purchased the very first admission ticket.

By the beginning of March, all of the workers were pushed very hard to complete work, with the men painting the exterior of the building, hanging the doors and painting the lobby. Heavy carpet with felt pads underneath would comfort the curious movie-goers as they entered the lobby. A drinking fountain was erected in the rear of the auditorium to cool off thirsty patrons. The theatre seats were divided into three sections, with one wide section in the middle, and two smaller ones on each side. In the middle, there was also an aisle that crossed the theatre to an exit.

The stage covered almost the entire width of the building, and was outlined by a beautiful proscenium arch. The auditorium was lighted indirectly by lights that were made especially for the theatre by the Voigt Company of Philadelphia. Luxurious Wiltor carpet containing shades of red, gold and black lined the foyer and the aisles. The projectors were reached by a stairway above the lobby, which was next to the generator room. There was even a restroom for the projectionist to the side of the projection room. A fire escape was also installed near this area.

Movies were shown on Simplex machines, with the sound being reproduced by RCA high-fidelity equipment. It was commented by one individual that the acoustics felt behind the walls was “the last word in sound perfection.” It is interesting to note that this sound and film apparatus was used by Radio City theatres in New York City during that same era. The projection room also contained a duplicate electrical control board where all lights could also be controlled.

The heating and air circulating machinery were located below the lobby. A very large American Radiator Company boiler provided the heat, with a large air chamber in back of it that contained a large motor-driven fan that supplied warm air into the building.

After many months of hard work, it was announced that the new theatre was to open on Thursday, March 21. Eight hundred and fifty comfortable seats provided by the National Theatre Company of Philadelphia waited to be filled, free of charge.

Built at a cost of $60,000, the theatre finally opened its doors that Thursday from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. for an inspection by the community. At 7 p.m., the first show was projected, with a dedication ceremony taking place between the first and second shows. Local dignitaries such as Senator H.J. Pierson, Professor M.C. Demmy and W.H. Muth all took part in the ceremonies and gave speeches. The stage, lobby and the foyer were all filled with fresh flowers courtesy of local merchants in commemoration of the opening. The evening’s feature was “The Gilded Lily,” starring Claudette Colbert. The only item not fully completed on opening night were the murals in the lobby. The Lititz Express’ headline that day read “The New LITITZ COMMUNITY THEATRE. A long felt need realized!…a dream of civic pride come true!” Many ads were placed by local businesses in that week’s issue congratulating the community on it’s brand new establishment. Some of the contributing local businesses were Morgan Paper Company of Lititz, which provided toilet tissue and paper towels; E.C. Foltz of West Orange Street, providing all of the plumbing work; crushed stone was provided by Binkley Brothers and Ober of Lititz; Long and Company, also of Lititz, provided the cement stone, lime, plaster, lumber and terra cotta pipe; and the furniture in the lobby was provided by Beck Brothers and R.M. Spacht, both of Lititz.

Over 1,200 attended the grand opening and everyone was in awe of its appearance. The Lititz High School Band was in attendance and played six musical numbers before the movie was shown to a sold-out, standing room only crowd. Shortly after 9 p.m., the curtain was raised so the dedication ceremonies could begin. Robert Posey of Lancaster acted as the master of ceremonies and called upon Burgess John Brenneman to officially receive the new theatre into the community. Many others spoke, including Lititz historian Herbert H. Beck. Chertcoff was then called to the stage, to massive applause, and thanked the community for all of its interest in the project. Even De Merlier was on hand and was recognized for his outstanding artwork.

The feature for the theatre’s first weekend was “The Lives of a Bengal Lancer.” “Anne of Green Gables” was planned for the following Monday and Tuesday, “Behold My Wife” was scheduled for Wednesday, “When a Man’s a Man” on Thursday and “The Little Minister” rounded out the first week on Friday and Saturday.

For nearly 30 years, movies were shown in downtown Lititz. The last film screened was on Dec. 24, 1964, “The Snow Queen.” Santa Claus also made his annual appearance to the theatre that day for one last time.

Although the marquee was taken down long ago and the building has been remodeled, part of the mural has been left intact inside what was once the theatre’s lobby, located at 47 E. Main St. It is the last sign of a once thriving community gathering place in our wonderful town, where men, women and children of all ages were awed by the big screen. From Brunnerville

to Broad Street By

Cory Van Brookhoven More LITITZ THEATRE, page A11