Friday, May 6, 2016

The Grand Theatre

In my April 30 article about the Prince Theatre, I mentioned that its owner, Marcus (Ben) Nadler, also once owned the Grand Theatre.

I don't know exactly when the Grand opened. A 1911 Sanborn Insurance map shows an unnamed "Picture Theatre" in that location; however, the December 1, 1913, Daily Times mentioned that the Ambridge Elks would be holding their annual memorial service "in the new Grand theatre." The Grand closed around 1926 1923, and a G. C. Murphy store moved into the building at 561 Merchant St.

On a recent visit to the Beaver County Historical Research & Landmarks Foundation in Freedom, I found this gem, identified as Ambridge's Grand Theatre. You can see a bit of "Grand" above the entrance.

Grand Theatre
561 Merchant St.
circa 1914 - 1921
Beaver County Historical Research & Landmarks Foundation

I'm basing the date of this photo on the movie Brewster's Millions being advertised. While there are other versions of this movie, the 1914 and 1921 movies were the only ones which would have been playing during the years the Grand was open. I was surprised when I saw the movie's title, because I knew it only as a 1985 Richard Pryor movie.

At first, I had my doubts that this was the Ambridge Grand. Not only were there several Grand theaters the Pittsburgh area, but I also was concerned by what was written on the photo's back:

Reverse of above Grand Theatre photo

"Ambridge Between 6th and 8th on Market St, on west side of street - Grand Theater."

Not only did Ambridge never have a "Market St." to my knowledge, but also Ambridge's Grand was in the 500 block of Merchant, not the 600 or 700 block. *

However, when I compared the facade on the building in the photo to the postcard below, I felt reassured that the photo did show the Ambridge Grand, despite the mistaken street location on the back of the photo.

500 block Merchant St. looking south
circa late 1910-early 1920s **
Beaver County Historical Research & Landmarks Foundation

On the postcard's right side, the fourth building in, is the building that the late Louis Vukovcan identified as the Grand Theatre on the copy of this card that was in his collection. The facade and entryway of that building look like the building in the photo.

Grand Theatre ad
The Citizen
July 3, 1922

The photo below shows what 561 Merchant St. looked like in March 2014 after the Dollar General store, which had moved in after G. C. Murphy closed, moved to a new building in the 600 block of Merchant. According to Ambridge Connection, a new business, Just Jump, an "indoor inflatable bounce facility" will soon be opening in that building.

I've been hunting for a photo of Ambridge's G. C. Murphy for a long time without success. If you have one you're willing to share, or know where I can find one, please leave a comment.

Former Grand Theatre and G. C. Murphy's building
461 Merchant St.
March 30. 2014

Update June 16, 2016:

I've found some great new information on Ambridge's Grand Theatre!

Marcus (Ben) Nadler wasn't the first owner of the Grand. In 1914, it was owned by Nick Tragesser. The photo below is from the April 23, 1914, Pittsburgh Moving Picture Bulletin.

Grand Theatre
Pittsburgh Moving Picture Bulletin
April 23, 1914

Original caption:
Herewith is presented a picture of Nick Tragesser's fine house in Ambridge, which is a credit to the district. It has a seating capacity of 500, is equipped with everything new in the business and is enjoying a large and profitable patronage. Wieland's service is used. 

"Wieland's" appears to have been a Western Pennsylvania movie booking service.

Tragesser is named as the owner of the Colonial Theatre in Ambridge in a February 2, 1916, issue of the same publication. As far as I know, the Colonial was right next door to the Grand at 559 Merchant St.

I haven't been able to find any information yet on when Tragesser sold the Grand to Nadler, but I'll be on the hunt. Nadler owned the Grand by 1921.

Mike Winegrad, Ben Nadler, Sam Gould
Pittsburgh Moving Picture Bulletin
November 26, 1921

Original caption:
Here's a trio of exhibitors snapped at the Ninth Street film section. They are Mike Winegrad, of the Majestic, Rochester; Ben Nadler, of the Grand and Regent, Ambridge, and Sam Gould, of the Gold and Arcadia, North Side, and the Rivoli, East Pittsburgh. They are all progressive and aggressive and up-to-date showmen in every sens of the word.

Below is a full page ad for the Seltzer Music Co., Pittsburgh, which sold organs and pianos to theaters. The ad shows the interior of the company's customers, including the Grand Theatre in Ambridge at the bottom left.

Seltzer Music Co. ad
Pittsburgh Moving Picture Bulletin
December 10, 1921

I've tried to enlarge the Grand photo a bit:

Grand Theatre interior
Seltzer Music Co. ad
Pittsburgh Moving Picture Bulletin
December 10, 1921

The April 21, 1923, issue of the Pittsburgh Moving Picture Bulletin supplied an answer to some information that had puzzled me.

In my April 30, 2016 article about The Prince Theatre, also owned by Nadler, I linked to an article about Mike Kubek, Ambridge appliance store owner, and long-time movie projectionist, "Ambridge man is model worker." In the article, Kubek said the Prince closed in 1931, yet I knew it was open in the 1940s and early '50s. Had the Prince closed, and then reopened? Yes! Although I'm still confused about the years it was closed.

That 1923 Bulletin issue had a short article titled, "Ben Nadler Will Close One House and Open Another." The article said that Nadler was remodeling and enlarging the Prince which had been "closed for the past two years." The Prince, scheduled to reopen on September 1, would have 700 seats, increased from 450.

So did the Prince close in the early 1920s, reopen, and then close again in 1931? I don't know yet.

And how is the information about the Prince relevant to the Grand? Because the 1923 article concluded: "When the Prince theatre is re-opened, Ben will close and dismantle the Grand, as the building has been leased by other interests, and will be converted into a store-room."

End of update.]

Louis Vukovcan identified the first building on the left side of the above postcard as the "National Bank" building. I think it must have been the Ambridge National Bank building before that bank moved into its newly constructed building on the northeast corner of 6th and Merchant in September 1926. The only other "National Bank" I know of in Ambridge during that era was the Economy National Bank which reorganized as the Economy Bank in 1934, and that bank was on the corner of 5th and Merchant. You can see a postcard showing the Ambridge National building in the Prince Theatre article mentioned at the beginning of this post.

* [Update May 7, 2016: Barbara Carrodus suggested that the back of the card might say "Between 6th and 5th," which I can see is possible. That would be even better, because it would place the theater in the right block.]

** The reason I dated the postcard's scene as circa 1910 - 1920 is because of the double set of trolley tracks. At some point during those years, the double tracks were replaced by a single track. You can see the change from double to single tracks in my October 30, 2014, article "400 block of Merchant Street: vintage views."

1 comment:

  1. jd aka john domansky,
    just read this, nice work for sure.10 versions of that movie has to be a record for any movie. saw 45 BM in ambridge theater. murphys has spot in my heart too, dated a gal that worked there 1951, picked her up after work 9pm & went to a late movie lol, no car so we walked, met her up in boro park, for a picnic, a month b4.