Rowland Theatre recalls the cinema's golden era - The Daily Collegian: Arts & Entertainment

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Rowland Theatre recalls the cinema's golden era

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Posted: Tuesday, October 3, 1989 12:00 am

They came in at night with flashlights, breaking the lock on a side door. They stole through the abandoned theatre, breaking into the projection room, smashing bulbs, and finally pulling out knives and slashing the movie screen that had been a part of the Rowland Theatre in Philipsburg since the start of movies themselves.

In March, 1989, vandals attacked the theatre, destroying the screen and smashing the projector's Xenon bulb, which cost $930 to replace. This was just one more hurdle for Philipsburg Borough to overcome in its efforts to restore the historic Rowland Theatre.

The theatre was built in 1917 by namesake Charles Rowland. The brick front is slightly rundown, and the foyer has been remodeled to make room for the candy counter. Through the marble archways, however, a wide open arena is revealed.

Heavy gold cloth covers the walls. Deep red velvet curtains with gold tassels adorn the side doors. In front of the screen sits the orchestra pit, which sound movies have left vacant. The screen lifts to reveal a large stage, complete with trapdoor for the vaudeville shows. The Rowland Theatre, which at maximum capacity seats 1,141, is a vintage piece of real estate.

Saved repeatedly by men, corporations, and finally the Borough of Philipsburg, the Rowland Theatre is a blend of the new infringing on the old, punctuated by the vandals' disrespect for another era. In the old manager's office, pin-ups from 1970 are thumbtacked to the mahogany walls. The marble ticket office now serves as storage space for cleaning supplies. The blue paint on the ceiling is chipping from water damage, and the 11 dressing rooms under the stage that once accommodated such western and vaudeville stars as Tom Mix are empty chambers, except for a box of 11-cent tickets.

These dressing rooms, the ballroom upstairs and the "peanut gallery" -- the balcony that was equipped with love seats for two -- are no longer open to the public except for tours.

Kenny Fleck, who has worked for the Rowland for a little over 40 years, guides the tours, spouting historical information. In the basement a mammoth rusted fan sits unused.

"That used to blow air through the whole theater," said Fleck. "In the winter time, some people bring blankets when it's cold and they watch the movie. Bats live in the vents now. They fly around during the movie." He chuckled. "Girls think they are going to get in their hair."

Behind the fan is a small door. "That goes down to the Old Mud Church. That's a tunnel." The "Old Mud Church" is about five blocks away. "That tunnel is for slaves, when they would escape," said Fleck and he walked away, leaving the visitor to stare at a small portion of the Pre-Civil War Underground Railroad that was actually underground.

The present manager, Fred Askey, knows nothing of the Underground Railroad tunnel, and some of the inhabitants of Philipsburg shake their heads in disbelief.

Regardless, the other aspects of the theatre that make it a monument to history are what undoubtedly has saved the Rowland from becoming an eyesore or totally renovated for other purposes, the fate of the old Majestic Theatre, which used to be right down the street.

The original owner, Charles Rowland, built his theatre on the site of an old opera house. The theatre then went through a few owners and managements, in the meantime housing World War I fundraisers ("The Kaiser -- 'The Beast of Berlin' "), Saturday Will Rogers and Gene Autry movies, and World War II teen dances in the upstairs ballroom. Old press releases from the Rowland brag about the big 1970 event when it housed the movie The Cross and the Switchblade , and one of the stars, none other than Erik Estrada himself, came to the Rowland.

The Rowland closed for the first time on Oct. 31, 1978. This prompted the formation of the Rowland Community Development Corporation, a group of residents "...dedicated to the reuse of the Rowland Theatre." The RCDC was an outgrowth of "Save the Rowland," an earlier organization, and on Oct. 17, 1981, Robert M. Sheriff and the RCDC held a grand re- opening of the theatre.

On Dec. 4, 1988 the Rowland was closed again. Sheriff was in debt and during the "Sheriff Sale" the Clearfield Bank and Trust Company bought the Rowland for $42,000, Askey said.

It was then sold to Cinemette Corporation of America. Devoid of profits, the Rowland's fate was uncertain when Cinemette began to sell its theatres to Cinema World. It was saved one more time when Stern Enterprises, of which Cinemette was a part, simply gave the theatre back to the Philipsburg Borough.

"It wasn't making any money,"said Art Stienstra, controller of Stern Enterprises. "The whole idea was that if someone had another use for it, they could deal directly with the municipality. It's a beautiful old building," he added.

Now owned and run by the Philipsburg Borough, renovations are being plotted. The slashed screen was replaced at a cost of $1,100, raised by the Philipsburg residents. The state budget has allotted $15,000 for a heating system and more funding is in the works.

The Rowland reopened on July 7, 1989 with the movie Major League and is now again a working theatre. The red velvet seats are in bad need of repair but at least are being used. The upstairs ballroom is vacant, the hardwood floor warped with water damage, and the backstage, which according to Fleck once had a ramp leading to the railroad tracks so the vaudeville elephants could come in, will probably not be used again. However, with the care of its citizens and a little respect, the Rowland is on its way to becoming as gorgeous and as useful as it once was.

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