Pennsylvania’s Historic Movie Theaters Offer a Chance to Beat the Heat in a Classic Cinema Setting

Pennsylvania's Historic Movie Theaters Offer a Chance to Beat the Heat in a Classic Cinema Setting

Photo by J.Fusco courtesy of Visit Philadelphia

By Kalena Thomhave

August 4, 2023

Across the state, Pennsylvania’s well-preserved movie palaces offer film lovers a chance to escape summer’s stifling heat while taking a trip back in time.

Going to the movies to see the newest blockbuster is one of the highlights of summer—especially when the temperatures creep toward sweltering and are accompanied by an ever-oppressive veil of humidity. A trip to the movies is timeless—it’s an experience that Pennsylvanians have enjoyed for more than a century. Indeed, the very first public movie theater in the country opened in Pittsburgh in 1905. Each 15-minute show cost a nickel at this theater known as Pittsburgh’s “nickelodeon.”

Large and elaborate movie palaces soon followed nickelodeons as movie fever gripped the country in the early twentieth century. While many of these incredible buildings—some built in the opulent classical style, some in sleek Art Deco—have since been destroyed, many others have been historically renovated or saved from the wrecking ball by community members. As a result, Pennsylvania is home to a slew of iconic, historic movie theaters still in operation that make going to the movies even more special.

There are dozens of these classic and vintage movie theaters across our state, both in small towns and big cities. We’re highlighting six of our favorites for you to check out this summer and included other historic Pa. theater recommendations for you to peruse. After you’ve made a visit to a theater near you, keep searching your area: there might be an amazing old theater quietly operating in a nearby town just waiting for your visit.

Ambler Theater – Ambler

Pennsylvania's Historic Movie Theaters Offer a Chance to Beat the Heat in a Classic Cinema Setting

Photo by R. Kennedy courtesy of Visit Philadelphia

This elaborate theater, built in the Spanish Colonial style in 1928, stands tall over downtown Ambler in Montgomery County. The tall, terra cotta façade hoists a large neon sign carrying the theater’s name — Ambler — in a replica of the original. And inside, one can find a community institution that’s been lovingly resurrected over the past two decades.

The Ambler Theater was originally opened by Warner Bros., but as was the case with many historic movie palaces, it became tough to turn a profit when TV and movie multiplexes became popular. But in 2001, a nonprofit took ownership of the theater and devoted $2 million to its restoration, which included studying photos to get the carpet to match as closely to the original as possible.

Today, the Ambler shows mainstream, classic, and arthouse films, and also hosts film discussions and community art events. During the remaining days of summer, you can join the theater for its Hollywood Summer Nights, when it shows classic Hollywood movies, according to the Ambler, “the way they were intended to be seen: on the big screen with a crowd of fellow movie lovers.”

Pitt Theatre – Bedford

The Pitt Theatre, located in charming Bedford, claims the title of Pennsylvania’s oldest continually operating movie theater! The Pitt first opened in 1939, and while it isn’t as decadent as other historic theaters, it also hasn’t deviated from its original purpose of showing movies. Check out this class theater’s schedule of first-run movies. In the spirit of an old-fashioned movie theater trip, ticket prices at the Pitt Theatre are all under $10.

F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts – Wilkes-Barre

This Art Deco beauty, originally the Comerford Movie Theater, opened its lavish interior, complete with chandelier, to the public in 1938. The theater spent many years as a community mainstay, but 1970s competition from multiplexes caused the theater to struggle, and it eventually closed. The beautiful interior was ultimately gutted and the building set for demolition.

A group of community members worked together in the late 1970s to save the old theater from certain destruction, and save it they did. After a fervent community fundraising campaign, the theater reopened, newly restored, in 1986.

Today, what’s now known as the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts is more than a movie house—it’s an event center, a stage for theatrical shows, concerts, and more. But it retains its roots as a movie theater, giving you the chance to see new and old movies alike on the big screen.

Historic Montrose Theatre – Montrose

The Historic Montrose Theater is roughly 100 years old and is still a small, single-screen theater, allowing one to have an intimate experience with a movie in Susquehanna County. The little theater prides itself as a community institution, and indeed many of its renovations—and sometimes, even ticket prices—have been bankrolled by businesses anchored in the population-1,000 small town of Montrose. Check out this gem and buy tickets at the box office (tickets aren’t sold online) if you’re in the area.

Harris Theater – Pittsburgh

Pennsylvania's Historic Movie Theaters Offer a Chance to Beat the Heat in a Classic Cinema Setting

Photo courtesy of Nick Amoscato

Originally opening as Art Cinema in 1931, this theater showed art movies in downtown Pittsburgh for thirty years before competition and revenue issues led to its conversion to an adult theater. But it reopened once more in the 1990s after the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust purchased the theater and restored it to its original charm—and purpose. Now called the Harris Theater, the cultural landmark screens art films each day of the year, often using vintage 35mm projectors. The theater is also BYOB!

Colonial Theatre – Phoenixville

Pennsylvania's Historic Movie Theaters Offer a Chance to Beat the Heat in a Classic Cinema Setting

Photo by J. Fusco courtesy of Visit Philadelphia

The Colonial Theatre in Chester County’s Phoenixville was originally built in 1903 for vaudeville acts, though it drew in crowds for all sorts of entertainment from stage shows to, eventually, movies. In 1958, Americans across the country saw the Colonial when it was featured in the classic science fiction movie, “The Blob.”

“The Blob” is an important part of the theater’s history, so the Colonial holds an annual “Blobfest” to celebrate it and other horror movies. The festival also holds a reenactment of the “The Blob” scene featuring the Colonial, with dozens of movie patrons fleeing the theater.

Today, the Colonial Theatre shows new and classic films and also stages live shows. Check out the theater’s schedule of films and other events!

More historic theaters to check out:

Pennsylvania's Historic Movie Theaters Offer a Chance to Beat the Heat in a Classic Cinema Setting

Photo by R. Kennedy courtesy of Visit Philadelphia

Majestic Theatre, Gettysburg (Adams County)

Manor Theatre, Pittsburgh (Allegheny County)

County Theater, Doylestown (Bucks County)

Newtown Theatre, Newtown (Bucks County)

Carlisle Theatre, Carlisle (Cumberland County)

West Shore Theatre, New Cumberland (Cumberland County)

Capitol Theatre, Chambersburg (Franklin County)

Allen Theatre, Annville (Lebanon County)

Hiway Theater, Jenkintown (Montgomery County)

Roxy Theatre, Northampton (Northampton County)

Victoria Theatre, Blossburg (Tioga County)

Struthers Library Theatre, Warren (Warren County)

Capitol Theatre, York (York County)

And more! Is there a historic theater near you?

 

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