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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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.

2018

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Happy New Year Everyone!

This year will mark the 7th anniversary of the After the Final Curtain, and with that I’m going to do something a bit different. AFtC will be going weekly in 2018! I’ve been photographing theaters much faster than I’ve been posting them, and as you can see by the image above I’ve got quite a backlog. There will be at least one new theater post a month as well as interviews, videos, updates of old blog posts, and more.

Look for the first post (The Fitchburg Theatre in Fitchburg, Massachusetts) this Thursday.

After the Final Curtain: The Fall of the American Movie Theater update

After the Final Curtain: The Fall of the American Movie Theater
After the Final Curtain: The Fall of the American Movie Theater

I just received copies of my upcoming book, After the Final Curtain: The Fall of the American Movie Theater! I can’t wait for all of you to see it. It comes out this November and is available for pre-order on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and many other book stores.

I’ll be announcing some live events as we get closer to the book’s release date. Stay tuned!