Nineteenth Street Theater
Nineteenth Street (Civic) Theatre May 2004
|Address||527 North 19th Street|
Allentown, Pennsylvania, 18104
|Current use||Stage productions, Education programs, Film presentations|
|Years active||1928, 1930-1952, 1953-Present|
The Nineteenth Street (Civic) Theatre building is home of Civic Theatre of Allentown, an historic Theatre production company that produces live theater, runs educational programs, and screens art house films. Located in Allentown, Pennsylvania. It is the oldest cinema in Allentown, opening on 17 September 1928. In July 1957, the property was purchased by Allentown's Civic Little Theatre, and since that time stage productions have been performed at the theatre. In 1994 the company officially changed its name to the "Civic Theatre of Allentown."
Civic Theatre produces a live theatre season of four mainstage productions, as well as a children's theatre production and special events. The film arm of Civic primarily shows a variety of independent and international films, generally at lower prices than first run cinemas, about 60-80 movie titles a year. The Civic Theatre School enrolls more than 350 students a year in Fall, Winter and Summer sessions. The theatre's annual operating budget is roughly $1 million per year.
In the early 1920s, a building boom began in the West End of Allentown. People wanted to own houses with yards and more open space, and to have less noise than in the busy center of the city. Within four years, more than 150 homes with yards had been built in that area. In addition to the homes, plans were made for a block of shops, offices and restaurants. The Nineteenth Street Theater was an important part of this plan.
The theater was developed by Rubin Mainker and Alex Minker, and it opened on 17 September 1928. "No expense has been spared," reported the Allentown Morning Call newspaper. The walls inside were painted green with gold and silver accents. The outside of the building was bright yellow with fanciful decorations of birds, flowers, butterflies and elephants.
The first movie to be shown at the Nineteenth Street Theatre was a silent film called "The Sawdust Paradise". It featured the new Moller DeLuxe theatre organ that the owners of the 19th Street had purchased for $16,000. The heirloom instrument is still played at times for audiences at the theater today. Unfortunately, the large opening crowds were not able to make the theater a success. Financial problems and the new "talkies" made it difficult for the owners to keep it open, and in December 1928 the cinema closed its doors.
In 1930, the theater was sold to an L.J. Chamberlain of Amusements, Inc. It was converted to show sound films, and it became a second-run theater which, unlike its contemporaries in downtown Allentown, played popular films in a residential neighborhood after they ended their first run at the larger theaters in the entertainment district. Prices were considerably less: during the Depression of the 1930s, admission was 20 cents for adults and 10 cents for children. It operated successfully through the 1930s and 1940s, however after World War II, the advent of television affected the movie theater industry and by the early 1950s the theater was showing films to a largely-empty auditorium. It closed in February 1952. In the early 1950s, however, Albert Moffa, owner of the Americus Hotel, was interested in expanding into movie theaters, and along with the Franklin Theater, he re-opened the Nineteenth Street Theater in May 1953. It was purchased from Amusements, Inc, for $90,000. The projection system was modified to show 3D films, the fad at the time, and the first film shown was "Down Among the Sheltering Palms".
During the mid-1950s, Harold Heydt, then manager of the movie theatre began showing foreign films. In July 1957, Allentown's Civic Little Theatre announced it had purchased the 19th Street Theatre from Moffa for $95,000. It was the first home the community theatre group had had since its founding in the late 1920s. The nonprofit volunteer group began to enlarge the stage and quickly bowed to community requests in late 1957 that the Moller organ be retained.
Since taking ownership, and after many changes, the Civic Theatre of Allentown offers several plays a year at the theatre, in addition to a variety of independent and international films. Civic Theater School provides theatre training for young people of ages 4–18. The theatre's Board of Directors voted to hire William Sanders as artistic director in 1991 and he has led the theatre to produce the annual "A Christmas Carol," as well as many popular musicals, dramas and newer cutting edge work as well.
In 1994 significant renovations were made to the marquee, which was in severe need of updating. Fund-raising efforts and a grant from the Trexler Trust was secured to finance the repair, which was carried out by the Alvin Butz Inc. construction company.
In addition to its main historic theater, Civic Theater of Allentown owns Theatre514, a production center and a 92-seat theatre that is directly across the street from the main theater. Civic uses the facility as one of its screens for its well-regarded independent and international film series, as well as to produce and present additional theatrical programming. This theatre underwent a major renovation and expansion in summer 2014.
In 2009, Civic Theatre alumni Michael McDonald was nominated for both a Tony Award and a Drama Desk Award in Costume Design for his work in the Broadway revival of Hair. Among the other prestigious alumnae of Civic Theatre are former Lehigh Valley residents and professional actors Amanda Seyfried ("Mama Mia"), Michaela Conlin  FOX TV's "Bones"), Dan Roebuck  ("The Late Shift"); actor Dane DeHaan ("In Treatment"); and actress Christine Taylor ("The Wedding Singer").
Civic Theatre entered the digital motion picture era when it replaced its traditional 35mm projectors with state-of-the art DCI compliant units. The conversion was completed in August 2013. Civic Theatre's live production arm continues to flourish. The 2014-15 Season includes an adaptation of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," which will celebrate its 25th annual mounting when it opens on December 5. The production is being marked with special events, including a retrospective exhibition at Allentown's Liberty Bell Museum. Civic's recent production of "Young Frankenstein" was its best attended musical in recent years. The upcoming mounting of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" will be the first post-Broadway production of the play since its New York bow in 2013.
The Civic Theatre has begun a two-phase renovation project that will restore the auditorium, upgrade the stage equipment and improve the backstage and front-of-house amenities. Completion is anticipated by the end of 2018. The project is led by Mills and Schnoering Architects with Stages Consultants providing theatre and acoustics consulting.
- Polishing A Gem Lights To Shine Bright On Refurbished Marquee Of 19th Street Theatre, The Morning Call, September 22, 1994
- Lauer-Williams, Kathy (June 7, 2009), "Designs on a Tony: Allentown Native Michael McDonald is Nominated for Broadway's Top Honor for Costumes for 'Hair'", The Morning Call