This post was originally posted on After the Final Curtain’s Patreon in May 2021. For early posts, as well as video walkthroughs and other exclusive content you can become a patron at: https://www.patreon.com/afterthefinalcurtain
The Drake Theatre in Oil City, Pennsylvania opened on August 27, 1928, as the Colonel Drake Theatre. The date was chosen because it was the sixty-ninth anniversary of the completion of the first oil well drilled by Col. Edwin L. Drake, the first man to drill oil in the United States, and the theater’s namesake. The Vemark Corporation formed the Drake Theatre Realty Company (DTRC) to finance the construction, and $500,000 in bonds were sold, which was around half of the building’s appraised value. On January 7, 1928, DTRC invited the public to view the laying of the Drake’s cornerstone.
The 2,000-seat theater and 50,000 sq. ft office building was designed by architect William H. Lee, who is known for designing many theaters in eastern Pennsylvania. It was designed in the Art Deco style, and there are two murals depicting the petroleum industry on the auditorium walls. Music was important at the Drake; the Colonial Drake Symphony Orchestra, led by William Lantz, alternated performances with the Wurlitzer Co. Opus 1870 organ. Clark Piers, an organist from Scranton, PA, was hired as the theater’s organist.
Many businesses took out ads in the Oil City Derrick, the local newspaper, to congratulate the theater on its grand opening. The theater’s motto “Always a Good Show” appeared in early advertisements. The opening day celebration began with a street parade headed by a marching band. Many of the theater’s new ushers marched in the parade wearing their green and gold uniforms. Dr. Thomas Farmer, an Oil City businessman, gave the opening address, followed by George H. Torrey of the Oil City Historical Society, who told the history of the oil industry in the United States.
In the 1950s, one of the lobby staircases was removed so that a concessions stand could be installed. Due to competition from a local multiplex, the Drake closed in July 1986 after a showing of the film “Club Paradise” starring Robin Williams and Peter O’Toole. The Oil City Playhouse briefly reopened the theater in the mid-1990s as a performing arts center, but it closed again after a year. The building was put up for judicial tax sale in 1995 due to $221,000 in back taxes. It was purchased for $70,500 by Bruce Taylor, who owned Penn Aire Aviation, Inc. Taylor outbid a group that intended on restoring and reopening the Drake.
Penn Aire sold the building to Webco, a local manufacturing company, in early 2018. Webco intends to demolish the auditorium and build a facility to house manufacturing equipment. However, the lobby, façade, and office building will remain. Ellen Gierlach, president of Penn Aire, removed two murals, exit signs, light fixtures, and more before the sale. Gierlach has donated many of them to museums and historical societies, including the Drake Well Museum and the Theatre Historical Society of America.