Sorg Opera House – Middletown, Ohio

Auditorium, Sorg Opera House - Middletown, Ohio.
View of the auditorium from the balcony.

The Sorg Opera House in Middletown, OH originally opened on September 12, 1891. Paul J. Sorg, Middletown’s first multi-millionaire, had the opera house built as a gift to the city of Middletown. Sorg hired Samuel Hannaford, who designed the Cincinnati Music Hall, to design the 1,200-seat opera house. Opening day included a performance of the opera “The Little Tycoon,” composed by Willard Spenser and a speech by then Ohio Governor James E. Campbell.

View of the auditorium from the stage.

In 1901, the Sorg began showing early forms of motion pictures, such as photo plays, and vaudeville performances before the operas. Many now famous vaudeville performers played at the opera house, including Marie Dressler, Will RogersAl Jolson, Bob Hope and Sophie Tucker. The live shows were discontinued in the late 1920s, and in the summer of 1929 a sound system was installed, turning the Sorg into a full time movie theater.


The orchestra and mezzanine levels have been restored, but the upper balcony and ceiling remain in a state of disrepair. 

On January 17, 1935, a fire caused $10,000 (or $185,298 when adjusted for inflation) of damage to the backstage area of the theater, which caused it to close for several months. In April 1935, the Gordon Theatre Company took a long term lease on the theater and began repairs. It reopened in September 22, 1935 with films and stage shows. The Sorg closed again for a remodel in the late 1940s and a false ceiling was added, separating the upper balcony from the the rest of the theater to improve the sound.

The original walls of the lobby were covered up during the remodel in the 1940s.

The Sorg remained a movie theater until it closed in the late 1970s. Soon after, the Friends of the Sorg was formed to reopen it as a live performance venue. They were successful, and ran the theater until 2010, when a water main break forced the opera house to close again. In 2012, the Sorg Opera Revitalization Group (SORG) formed to buy and reopen the building. SORG was able to purchase the theater in August 2012 for $32,000. Since then they’ve made a number of improvements to the building, including removing the partition between the upper balcony and the rest of the auditorium, replacing the seats with ones donated from the Cincinnati Music Hall, repairing the public restrooms and re-hanging the house curtains. A full restoration of the building is estimated to cost between $9M and $11M. The Sorg reopened in late 2017 with a performance called “Celebrate the Sorg”  and featured the Butler Philharmonic Orchestra.

Like many theaters at the time, the Sorg was segregated. It had a separate entrance, ticket booth and balcony for its non-white patrons.
The much of the proscenium arch was covered up during the remodel in the late 1940s.
View of the auditorium from the main level.
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Strand and Capitol

Strand New Bedford

Strand Theatre, New Bedford, MA

Yesterday I attended a photography workshop at the Strand Theatre in New Bedford, Massachusetts hosted by Bryan Buckley of Vanishing New England. I love hosting workshops, but it was very nice to be on the other side of one this time. The Strand Theatre originally opened as the Vien Theatre in 1905, and is going to be turned into a community center in the near future.

Capitol Theatre, Fall River, MA.

While I was in the area I also visited the former Capitol Theatre in Fall River, MA. The Capitol originally opened on February 2, 1926. I believe it closed in the 1960s, but haven’t been able to verify that yet. Part of the orchestra level was converted into a bowling alley sometime after it closed.  The proscenium and organ chambers were removed so that a large steel support beam could be installed as part of the conversion.

I’ll be posting full write ups on both of these theaters very soon.

Fitchburg Theatre – Fitchburg, MA

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During the late 1930’s tickets cost .25 cents, except on Wednesdays when admission only cost .10 cents.

The Fitchburg Theatre in Fitchburg, Massachusetts originally opened on February 7, 1929. It was designed by architects Louis Chiaramonte and George W. Jacobs for the Maine and New Hampshire Theater Corporation (MNHTC). The construction of the theater displaced two buildings, one of which is now the Masciarelli Funeral Home, a Fitchburg Historic Landmark. MNHTC spared no expense in construction, which included a $15,000 Wurlitzer Style 190 pipe organ, large decorative tapestries for the auditorium, and a Photophone system. The 1,751-seat theater was the second theater in New England to have Photophone, a system of syncing recorded audio with motion picture.

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The Wurlitzer organ is long gone. It was removed in the 1960s.

Like many of its contemporaries, the Fitchburg Theatre had a mix of motion pictures and live (often vaudeville) performances. Its opening day program consisted of “In Old Arizona,” starring Warner Baxter, Dorothy Burgess and Edmund Lowe, five vaudeville acts (Miss Raffin’s Marvelous Troupe of Monkeys, Marie DeComa and Company, Don Romaine & Will Castle, Will Ward & Co.). Harry Rodgers played the Wurlitzer organ during the festivities. Tickets to the opening were reserved in advance and the same show was performed on February 8 and 9. Vaudeville performances continued at the theater until 1948, much longer than usual. In 1954, the theater closed for renovations. A concession stand, new marquee and updated seating were added.

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The Lobby is currently full of construction debris.

The Fitchburg Theatre closed in 1970 and reopened the following year as an adult theater. Fitchburg police raided the theater on December 31, 1973 and seized copies of “Deep Throat,” and “The Devil in Miss Jones.” More adult films were seized in subsequent raids on February 11, 1974 and July 5, 1974. The owners were fined $10,000 in August 1974 for violating Massachusetts obscenity laws.

 

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Frank Hollis, of the vaudeville team Kenney and Hollis was the first manager of the theater.

In 1975 the theater was forced to close when the city of Fitchburg refused to renew the theater’s license to show films. It was rumored that it was due to the obscenity law violations, but that was denied by Hedley Brey, the Mayor of Fitchburg at the time. Brey said it was because the owners had not complied with a city ordinance requiring the approval of the Health, Building, Fire and Police departments’ approval to show films to the public. Ben Sack Theatres, Inc. leased the theater later that year, and it reopened as the Family Theatre on July 30, 1975 with a showing of “Doc Savage: Man of Bronze.”

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Some of the original plasterwork can be seen again due to the drapes that were put up during the 1980 remodel falling down.

Live performances began again soon after it reopened, and many famous bands performed at the theater during this time, including; Rush, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Hank Snow and Freddy Fender. In 1980, the theater closed for renovations once again. This time it was triplexed with the orchestra level becoming one, and the balcony being divided into two smaller auditoriums. At the same time most of the ornate plasterwork was covered with drapes. Upon reopening the theater was renamed the Cinema-1-2-3. It closed for permanently in 1987 with a showing of “Crocodile Dundee.”

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One of the two smaller auditoriums created from the former balcony space.

A few plans to reopen the theater were proposed over the next two decades, including reopening it as a movie theater, becoming a “draft house” theater that served alcohol, and gutting the theater and turning it into a rock climbing gym. In November 2016, the main street theater block was purchased by Fitchburg State University (FSU) for $350,000. FSU have a three-phase plan to renovate and reopen the block culminating in the theater becoming a 1,600-seat performing arts space for use by the University’s theater program and community organizations.

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The second of the two balcony auditoriums.

My two books, After the Final Curtain: The Fall of the American Movie Theater, and Kings Theatre; The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Brooklyn’s Wonder Theatre are available on Amazon and bookstores worldwide. Signed copies can be purchased at my site.

Paramount Theatre Springfield, MA

The Paramount opened exactly one month before “Black Tuesday,” the day that the stock market crashed.

Originally billed in opening advertisements as “Springfield’s newest playground of pleasure,” the Paramount Theatre in Springfield, Massachusetts opened on September 29, 1929. In 1926, the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, later known as Paramount Pictures Corp, signed a 14-year contract at $100,000 per year for the space at the former Massasoit Hotel and hired architect Ernest Carlson to design the theater. Carlson designed the Paramount for talking motion pictures, which were quickly replacing silent films. The 3,200-seat theater took three years to build, and cost $1,118,000 ($16 million when adjusted for inflation). A Wurlitzer 3/11 Opus 2011, Style 230 theater organ was installed prior to opening.

The lobby of the Paramount.

The opening week program at the Paramount consisted of the 1812 Overture performed by the New York Symphony Orchestra, Joe Alexander playing the Wurlitzer organ, a Paramount newsreel, and “Dance of Life,” a talking film starring Nancy Carroll and Hal Skelly. Like many other theaters of the time, entertainers often made appearances at the Paramount. At first it was as part of a vaudeville act, and later on to promote their films. Some of the stars that appeared at the theater included Ethel Barrymore, Jack Benny, Eric Von Stroheim, and Lillian Gish. The theater was operated by Western Massachusetts Theatres, Inc. (WMT), which was a division of Paramount Pictures. WMT also operated the nearby Victory Theatre in Holyoke, Massachusetts. The Paramount Theatre was WMT’s flagship theater until 1952 when the movie studios were forced to give up ownership of theaters by the verdict of the United States vs. Paramount Pictures Supreme Court case.

View of the auditorium from the stage.

Movies were the main attraction at the Paramount until 1966, when musical performances and other live entertainment began to be regularly shown at the theater. In 1969, the Paramount closed for the first time. It reopened In 1975 and was renamed the Julia Sanderson Theater, after a Broadway actress from Springfield. Live shows continued at the theater until 1979, when it became a revival movie house, and its name was changed back to the Paramount.  A new screen, and a speaker system taken from the recently closed Victory Theatre, were installed. It closed for a second time in 1986, but was used occasionally until 1999.

The Massasoit Hotel closed in 1926 – a portion of it was converted into offices, and the remainder became the theater.

It was purchased by Paramount Realty Investment LLC/Creative Theater Concepts, who spent $1.3 million turning the theater into a nightclub/live performance space. It reopened as the Hippodrome Theatre in December 2000. The Hippodrome was a popular nighttime downtown destination for most of the 2000s. In 2011, it was purchased by the New England Farm Workers Council (NEFWC) for $1.7 million. They operated the theater sporadically until closing for good after a shooting in April 2015.  NEFWC intend to remove the nightclub alterations and reopen the theater as a live performance space, as well as restore the Massasoit Hotel into an 81-room boutique hotel. The estimated costs for the restoration are between $32 and $41 million.

When it opened the Paramount had an air cooling system designed by Raymond S. Graham, which was the first of its kind in Springfield.

The theater was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

“Gone with the Wind” was the first film shown at the revival house.

A close up of the mural above the proscenium arch.

View of the auditorium from the side of the balcony.

The Wurlitzer organ was restored during the 1999 renovation.

I’ll be hosting a photography workshop at the Paramount on November 4, 2017. For more details visit: http://www.mlambrosphotography.com/workshops/paramount-theatre-workshop

Theater Updates v2

There have been changes to some of the theaters I’ve photographed over the years, so it’s time for another update.

Fox Theatre Fullerton, CA.

The auditorium ceiling at the Fox Theatre in Fullerton, CA has been restored since I first visited it in 2014. New LED ceiling lights were installed at the same time.

Lobby, Paramount Theatre – Marshall, Texas

The lobby of the Paramount Theatre in Marshall, Texas has been converted into a performance venue by the owners of Musicians Unlimited. Musicians Unlimited operates out of one of the Paramount’s former retail spaces. They also restored the theater’s marquee, and held a relighting ceremony in 2016.

The paramount theater balcony

View from the balcony of the Paramount Theatre in Long Branch, NJ.

The Paramount (Broadway) Theatre in Long Branch, NJ was demolished in late Spring 2017.

Loew’s 46th Street Theatre – Brooklyn, NY

The interior of the Loew’s 46th Street Theatre was gutted in late 2015/early 2016, and the site is slated to become condominiums.

Loew’s Majestic Theatre – Bridgeport, Connecticut

Loew’s Palace Theatre – Bridgeport, Connecticut

The former Loew’s Theatre Complex (Loew’s Poli Theatre, Loew’s Majestic Theatre and the Savoy Hotel) are slated to be redeveloped over the next few years. First, the Majestic will be renovated and reopened as a performing arts center. Then, the Savoy Hotel will reopen as a 100 room hotel. Last, the Loew’s Poli (Palace) Theatre will become a banquet ballroom, gym, and a “family friendly indoor park.” Construction is slated to begin in 2018.

RKO Keith’s Theatre – Queens, NY

Work began at the RKO Keith’s Theatre in Queens, NY in late June 2017, 31 years after it closed. However, a stop work order went into effect the same day delaying the start of construction once again. The auditorium is slated to be demolished in the fall of 2017. Portions of the lobby, as well as the original ticket booth are slated to be incorporated into the condo building that will be constructed where the auditorium once stood.

Before and After, Embassy Theatre – Port Chester, NY

The Embassy Theatre in Port Chester, NY was gutted in the spring of 2017. No plans for the future of the space have been made public. Gutted photo courtesy of Gaby Gusmano.