Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Ambridge Theatre

Many people in the Ambridge area have fond memories of the small, mom-and-pop Ambridge Family Theatre at 645 Merchant Street that opened in 1965 and closed in 2014. This is not about that theater.

This is about the original Ambridge Theatre, the one that was Ambridge's biggest, grandest theater.

This theater:

Ambridge Theatre
714 Merchant St.
March 1965
Laughlin Memorial Library archives

The Ambridge Theatre opened on December 24, 1928, owned and operated by Marcus (Ben) Nadler, who also owned the Prince Theatre and had previously owned Ambridge's Grand Theatre and Regent Theatre.

The Ambridge Theatre Deluxe
Grand Opening Flier
December 1928
Louis Vukovcan collection
courtesy of Jackie Vukovcan

The announcement included this statement:


The policy of this theatre will be be show only the most carefully selected pictures--pictures that could offend no one--yet will entertain the most particular people.

De Luxe stage presentation--the best obtainable--will be shown together with news reels, comedies, and other screen attractions of equal high entertainment value.

Patronize the Ambridge Theatre--it is a modern, up-to-date theatre--beautiful, sanitary and comfortable--with entertainment no surpasses anywhere.

--The Management

The opening movie was Naughty Baby, followed later in the week by Three Week Ends.

The Ambridge Theatre Deluxe
Grand Opening Flier
December 1928
Louis Vukovcan collection
courtesy of Jackie Vukovcan

At the time it was built, the Ambridge Theatre was reported to be the largest theater in Beaver County, seating 1600. The theater's entrance at 714 Merchant St. didn't give a hint of just how big the theater was, as the storefronts between 7th St. and 714 hid the L-shaped building's size.

While the Ambridge wasn't as big or ornate as some of the Pittsburgh theaters in that era, the local newspapers were excited, anticipating the opening.

The Ambridge News-Herald wrote about last minute preparations for the opening:

While there is still considerable touching up to do, yet the main features are ready. Half a dozen janitors sweeping and dusting. The organ men are tuning up the great instrument and it will be in its best tone for the opening.

The big electric dome has been drawn to place and the lesser illuminating units are being hung. Carpenters are driving the last nails, the painters are brushing on the last swish of golden paint. The large mirrors in the lobby are being set and polished, so that when the doors swing open at 6:30 little if anything will be found unfinished.

At present writing, noon, Rosiman's Alabamians have arrived and are ready for the stage when the curtain goes up. Film for Alice White's latest picture, "Naughty Baby," is on hand and ready for the projecting machine. And most important of all the ticket office is set and the ticket chopper installed in the lobby.

Ambridge's Daily Citizen gushed over the $500,000 theater--almost $7,000,000 in today's money-- calling its opening "The biggest event in local theatrical history!":

The New Ambridge Theater, the beautiful, luxurious new house of the Ambridge Amusement Company, opens with all its radience (sic) at 6:30 this evening. From the spectacular electrical display on the exterior to its red plush seats, this house offers the superlative in theater construction and appointments. We won't say too much about it today, but as the result of a preview yesterday we can safely predict that everybody tonight is going to be awed--even thrilled--with the luxuriousness and ornateness of this beautiful structure. Really, the interior of the theater is "a thing of beauty and a joy forever," designed under the colorful Spanish and Italian influence. Its wide, richly carpeted aisles, magnificent draperies, and colorful lighting effects, make it one of the finest theaters in Western Pennsylvania.

The Daily Citizen noted that the movie Naughty Baby being shown on opening night was its world premier, "a privilege that is rarely accorded towns the size of Ambridge."

[Update August 22, 2017: Here's what the Ambridge Theatre's entrance looked like the year after it opened. Until I saw this photo, I never knew the marquee shown in the other photos in this blog post wasn't the original. I don't know when the marquee was changed. Note the icicles hanging from the bottom of the marquee, advertising that the theater had air conditioning.

Ambridge Theatre
Daily Citizen
August 10, 1929

End of update]

As far as I can tell, for most of its lifetime, the theater typically changed its movies twice a week. One--or two, because it frequently ran double features, two movies for the price of one--played Monday through Thursday, and another one or two movies played over the weekend. And there was always a cartoon before the first movie. On Saturday's, there would often be a special matinee for kids.

The Ambridge Theatre showed the first "all-talking movie," in Ambridge, The Wolf of Wall Street, on March 21, 1929. The theater also showed the first 3D movie in Ambridge, and installed the first panoramic screen in "the valley."

In 1930, Nadler sold the Ambridge and Prince to the Warner Bros. Theater chain for $700,000, which would be equivalent to over $9,825,000 today.

I don't know what the occasion was in the 1954 photo below showing a lot of excited boys in baseball uniforms lined up in front of the theater to see Johnny Guitar and Jungle Maneaters. The man wearing sunglasses, standing near the curb with folded arms looks to me like Walt Kasper, Ambridge funeral home owner who was active in community organizations. Those of you who remember Kasper, what do you think? Does anyone recognize anyone else in the photo? If so, please leave a comment. (As usual, the photo can be enlarged to see the details better by clicking on it.)

[Update July 21, 2017: Long time Ambridge resident Butch O'Keefe agrees that that's Walt Kasper in the photo. He adds that the man further to the right wearing a baseball cap, standing with the crowd of boys, may be a man with the last name of Bucka who was very active with Little League.]

[Update July 23, 2017: Jill Scheer says that the man behind Walt Kasper's right shoulder in the background of the crowd is her grandfather, Nicholas Scheer. She says he was not connected with Little League, so must have just been in the crowd at the right time to be captured in the photo.]

Line in front of the Ambridge Theatre
714 Merchant St.
credit: Glazer Collection, Athenaeum of Philadelphia
used with permission

I don't know how long that commitment the Ambridge management made to only show movies that "could offend no one" lasted, but in February 1957, the Beaver County Deanery of the Holy Name Society protested the theater's showing the controversial movie Baby Doll, described by IMDb as "A steamy tale of two southern rivals and a sensuous nineteen-year-old virgin." A 19 year-old who sleeps in a crib and sucks her thumb.

People whose memories of the Ambridge are better than mine recall the stunning Art Deco stairs leading to the second floor, and the beautiful Art Deco bathrooms there, as well as an entry into the balcony.

Here's just a smattering of Ambridge Theatre ads over the years.

One of the more cultural offerings:

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Ambridge Theatre ad
Daily Times
February 29, 1936

Before there were hours of Saturday morning cartoons on TV, kids went to the movies to see them:

17 Cartoons
Ambridge Theatre ad
Daily Citizen
September 3, 1948

A more modern classic, in technicolor!

Glass Menagerie
Ambridge Theatre ad
Daily Citizen
November 11, 1950

Gotta wear those stylish 3D glasses! Eek! A lion in your lap!

Bwana Devil
Ambridge Theatre ad
Beaver Valley Times
April 17, 1953

On the giant, curved panoramic screen:

From Here to Eternity
Ambridge Theatre ad
Beaver Valley Times
October 3, 1953

Lassie and five cartoons in the morning, more-adult movies later in the day.

New Orleans Uncensored, Women's Prison, and Lassie
Ambridge Theatre ad
Daily Citizen
June 10, 1955

Get a free back to school pencil box! I loved pencil boxes!

Back to School Show
Ambridge Theatre ad
Beaver County Times
August 24, 1964

A double feature for rock music lovers:

Girl Happy and Ferry Cross the Mersey ad
Ambridge Theatre
Beaver County Times
May 28, 1965

The Ambridge had a stage in front of the screen, and the theater served as a venue for a variety of events besides movies including stage shows, meetings, card parties, cooking demonstrations, boxing matches, and beauty pageants.

Platinum Blonde Revue
Ambridge Theatre ad
Daily Times
May 3, 1939

A touring company of the more talented contestants from radio's popular Major Bowes' Amateur Hour made a stop at the Ambridge Theatre.

Major Bowes' Amateurs on Tour
Ambridge Theatre ad
Daily Times
March 12, 1936

A few members of the World Series winning Pirates and announcer Bob Prince, made a special appearance in 1960. [Update July 23, 2017: Butch O'Keefe says he was at the Pirates' appearance, and that Face and Smith sang. That's an unexpected detail of the event.]

Pirates at Ambridge Theatre ad
Beaver County Times
November 15, 1960

The Ambridge closed in the summer of 1965 and was razed later than year to make room for a new bank building. I think the photo below with the blank marquee and empty looking buildings next to the theater was probably taken between the time the theater closed and its razing.

Ambridge Theatre
714 Merchant St.
Laughlin Memorial Library archives

It doesn't look like much of the once beautiful building was saved during the demolition.

Ambridge Theatre being razed
Beaver County Times
November 8, 1965

Times caption for the photo above:

THEATER BUILDING BEING RAZED -- This is how the lobby of the Ambridge Theater (sic) looks as it is being torn down by a wrecking crew to make way for another office of Pittsburgh National Bank.

Crane razing Ambridge Theatre
Beaver County Times
November 19, 1965

Times caption for the photo above:

BEING RAZED -- Demolition work on the former Ambridge Theater (sic) building, Merchant Street, is expected to be completed by the end of this month. Plsburgh Naional (sic) Bank will open an outlet on the site.

Today, the former Pittsburgh National Bank building is occupied by Huntington Bank. The Ambridge Theatre's entrance was where the parking lot between the bank and Alexander's Restaurant is.

My memories of the Ambridge Theatre

Too bad none of the photos are in color, showing the marquee lit at night; it was beautiful. I remember the lights being orange, gold, and cream, perhaps because of the "Spanish and Italian influence."

I remember standing in long lines stretching from the theater's entrance to 7th St., then curving up 7th St., waiting to buy tickets for movies.

I would buy tickets at the ticket booth near the sidewalk, then walk through the outer lobby over a red carpet up a slightly sloping floor. Framed posters advertising coming attractions hung on either side of the lobby. At the far end of that outer lobby, there were doors leading to an inner lobby.

The refreshment counter was on the right side of that inner lobby. My mom usually gave me some change to buy candy at the counter. Since the projectionist had to change reels of film between the cartoon and the first movie, and again before the second movie of a double feature, there were intermissions giving me time to go to the refreshment counter if I hadn't bought any candy when I first went into the theater.

My favorite movie candies were the boxes of caramel creams, nonpareils, and Jordan Almonds. I also have a distinct memory of eating Good & Plenty at the theater, which would have been a weird thing for me to buy, because I didn't like Good & Plenty candy much.

I have other, pretty vague memories of that inner lobby: a pay phone hung on the left side, stairs to the balcony, and a pop machine that dispensed your drink selection into a small paper cup.

From the inner lobby, movie-goers would make a right into the large seating area that sloped gently down towards the screen. A curtain covered the screen, parting when the show was about to start.

I can recall only a few of the movies I saw at the Ambridge, most of them in my teen years: The Cardinal (the birth scene in that movie is still seared into my mind); Flight from Ashiya (a movie I was not excited about, but which I sat through twice, because I had a celebrity crush on one of its stars, George Chakiris, who I'd seen in West Side Story. I neglected to call my mom to tell her I was going to watch the movie again, and I later found her in the lobby, extremely worried); It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; It's a Hard Day's Night; and the first James Bond movie I saw, Goldfinger (my uncle later told my mom that he was shocked she'd allowed me to see it as there was "nudity" in it).

A Hard Day's Night
Ambridge Theatre ad
Beaver County Times
December 21, 1964

The Ambridge would give parochial school students vouchers for discounts to religious-themed movies which the theater would run on Holy Days of Obligation. We didn't have school on the holy days, and I guess the Ambridge was trying to keep us Catholic kids wholesomely entertained and out of trouble.

The Song of Sister Maria
Ambridge Theatre ad
Beaver County Times 
May 21, 1960

You'll often hear Bridgers who grew up in the early 1950s or earlier reminisce how Ambridge once had four theaters operating on Merchant St. And that's true. At least for a short time.
Here are those four theatres and the years they were open. As you can see, Ambridge had all four theaters open for only about six or seven years. But having four theaters to choose from was great while it lasted.

Prince Theatre: early 1920s - 1951 (?)
Ambridge Theatre: 1928 - 1965
Penn Theatre: 1933 (?) - early 1950s
State Theatre: 1944 - 1959

And apparently, four different theaters may have operated at the same time in an earlier era. In the Beaver County Times, August 13, 1965, Tom Moore, a long-time projectionist for several theaters says that in the early 1920s, Ambridge had four theaters: Palm Gardens, Idle Hours, Family, and Grand.

Monday, July 10, 2017

American Bridge Office building, early design

The Real Estate Trust Co. of Pittsburgh, with an office at the corner of Park Rd. and Fifth St. in Ambridge, had the job of selling the new town of Ambridge to potential businesses and residents. Among the real estate company's efforts were full page ads touting the "Marvel City" in the Pittsburg Press and a multi-page sales brochure, "Ambridge, Reasons for Her Coming Greatness." The brochure is undated, but because it describes the very early stages of the building of the American Bridge Co. plant and Ambridge's infrastructure, I believe it was written in 1903.

The brochure had a number of photos of the early preparations for the new town, including a sketch of the American Bridge office that was then under construction--topped by a clock tower in the center of the roof. Seeing that sketch was the first I learned that the plans for the office had once included a clock tower. I don't know why the clock tower was never built, but it's a shame, as it would have added to the handsomeness of the office.

None of the photos in the brochure reproduced well, but I wanted to share the sketch with you, even if it's barely satisfactory:

Sketch of planned American Bridge office
"Ambridge, Reasons for Her Coming Greatness."
Real Estate Trust Co.

The caption under the sketch says:
Magnificent engineering headquarters, now building in Ambridge, where 800 engineers and draughtmen of the American Bridge Co. will be installed by Jan. 1.
Here's what the office building looked like under construction:

American Bridge Co. office building under construction
courtesy Gary Augustine

Here's a postcard showing what the office looked like shortly after completion:

"Office American Bridge Works--Ambridge, PA"
circa 1903

The office building was razed in 2014.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

400 block of Duss Ave. in 1930 utility pole ad

The ad below shows part of the 300 and 400 blocks of Duss Ave. in a 1930 ad for somewhat decorative fluted utility poles. Those steel poles are no longer there, replaced by not-remotely-decorative wooden poles at some point.

Union Metal distribution poles ad
Electrical World
October 4, 1930

Here's a close up look at the photo, captioned "Union Metal 30-foot poles installed at Ambridge, Pa., by Duquesne Light Co.":

300 - 400 blocks of Duss Ave.
Electrical World
October 4, 1930

You can see a part of the Elks building--now American Legion Canady-Hull Post No. 341--on the far right.

One of the advantages of the poles according to the ad was "No underground construction was necessary as street lighting circuits are carried inconspicuously overhead." As opposed to the current method of making utility cables less conspicuous by burying them underground, as Ambridge is considering doing on Merchant St. as part of its latest streetscape improvement project.

Union Metal is still in business and still making poles for street lighting. That company's website has other historic ads for their poles, but not the one with Duss Ave.

Electrical World is a trade magazine that, as far as I can determine, is still being published.