“Part of the fabric of our community.” – Hollywood Theater

Workers use torches to cut the marquee from the front of the building.

Workers use torches to cut the marquee from the front of the building.

The marquee’s bright lights beam. The aroma of fresh, hot, buttered popcorn wafts through the lobby. The theater lights dim. The audience is atwitter with excitement as the show is about to begin. First on the screen is a trailer for a coming attraction, then a cartoon is screened, followed by a newsreel. Finally, the moment everyone has been waiting for arrives and the show begins. Will the hero save the day and win the heart of his leading lady? The answer to that question, along with the delicious ambience of the theater itself, could be had for the low, low price of only 25 cents.

Welcome to California, Pennsylvania in the year 1938, the same year Hollywood came to town.

On July 18 at 6 p.m., the Hollywood Theater first opened for business. Long before days of Blu-Rays, DVDs, Netflix, Redbox or cable television, there was only way to see a flick – big as life on the screen. The Hollywood was home to movies featuring – among other topics – gun-slinging cowboys, swashbuckling pirates and aliens from outer space out to conquer earth… and perhaps snack on a few tasty earthlings!

For the next 40 years, California residents thrilled to the sights and sounds of the silver screen in their own backyard. For many, the Hollywood was the place they first saw cinema gems such as Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, Night of the Living Dead, The Godfather, Rocky and Star Wars.

In the 1940s a bowling alley – The Hollywood Bowling Center, later The Hollywood Lanes Bowling Alley, opened in the space underneath the theater.

“As with many residents, the theater was a memorable part of my childhood,” California resident Rose Capanna said, “If you’re a certain age and you were living here 30 years ago, you saw movies there and you bowled there. It was part of the fabric of our community.”

Upon opening, the Hollywood was ahead of its time in a couple of ways. First was the seating capacity. Able to seat 900 patrons, the theater boasted stadium seating along the lines of what the big chain multiplexes have today. Second, the theater was equipped with air conditioning, a feature most houses lacked until the 1950s.

As already mentioned, admission was 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children. Children under 12 were allowed to sit in the first ten rows.

Events such as “Bank Night” were held at the theater during the 1940s. A large drum would be brought out on stage and a drawing held. Patrons held onto their ticket stubs, marked with a number, in hopes of winning a prize. Prizes included furniture, among other items, and often were donated by local businesses such as the Kotler-Spiegel Furniture Store, which was located on the site now occupied by Brodak’s Apartments.

Until 1959, the Hollywood was also the site of all of then California Community High School’s graduations were held as the school’s auditorium was too small. The school built a larger auditorium in 1960s where future graduations were held.

For two years, from October of 1961 to January 1962, critically acclaimed foreign films debuted there each weekend including film classics such as Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Fredrico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria.

In the 1970s, California University of Pennsylvania – then California State College – held a class in the bowling alley called “Billiards, Billboards and Tennis”. The theater played host to a number of rock concerts during that time as well.

In the fall of 1973, the theater was forced to close as the owners reportedly said it costs a “King’s ransom” to heat the space during the winter months. However, the theater re-opened under new management and the first film screened was Logan’s Run. Admission had climbed to the exhorbitant rate of one dollar, and each film was only shown for a week.

The interior of the Hollywood Theater is exposed during its demolition.

The interior of the Hollywood Theater is exposed during its demolition.

Fast forward to 1978. The world had changed a great deal since the Hollywood first opened forty years earlier. The era of cable television and home video rental was upon us.

Single screen theaters were becoming more and more scarce, and multi-screen theaters were opening.

The last film to be shown on the Hollywood’s majestic screen was Straight Time, starring Dustin Hoffman. Shortly after, The Hollywood Theater closed for good.

The Hollywood sat closed and inoperational for nearly 30 years. There was a possibility in 2008 that something might be done to restore the building but it was later determined that this would not be cost effectiveIn 2009, it was announced the building would be demolished. The actual demolition took place in 2012.

Currently, the site once occupied by the historic theater stands empty and it’s unknown at the time of this printing what plans lie ahead for the vacant lot. However, a relic of the Hollywood’s history remains. In 2010, then California mayor Casey Durdines donated an original chair from the theater to the California Area Historical Society as well as the original box office ticket booth.

Though the era of Hollywood in California, Pa., may have ended, magical memories of the Hollywood Theater remain in the minds of area residents.
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Story by Chuck Brutz for Pennsylvania Bridges

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