Senate Theater

13-15 North Second Street,
Harrisburg, PA 17101

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Ross Care
Ross Care on January 26, 2010 at 6:40 pm

The classic Disney features (initially released by RKO, then Buena Vista) were always screened first-run at the Senate. It also showed Universal International and I saw pictures like CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE in 3-D there. And a re-issue of KING KONG which was a big event for kids in the ‘50s.
When CinemaScope premiered HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE and other Fox films were shown though the Senate screen was really not big enough to contain an impressively huge 'Scope image. (Only the State in Harrisburg could do that).
The Senate was the last downtown movie house standing and it broke my heart when it was razed. It was a great little theater and I loved it.
I have a photo of the electric eye door which I will try to post if I am able.

TheaterBuff1 on August 31, 2007 at 1:17 am

It would be great if you post scans of those photos somewhere, John, and provide a link so we could see them.

JohnMessick on August 30, 2007 at 5:21 pm

John S in York, I have several pictures of the exterior of the Senate. Two from the 40’s? and one from around 1988 or so. None of the interior.

1posterfan4sure on August 30, 2007 at 11:22 am

I recall the Senate as Harrisburg’s Disney theater. With rare exceptions, the Disneys always played there, and the Senate was probably the first theater a lot of youngsters attended in the 50s and early 60s. I can still remember seeing what might have been my first movie, Disney’s “Snow White” on the big Senate screen in 1958, and many more thereafter until they began to lose the Disneys and the family pictures to suburban theaters. Other popular films that played the Senate during my movie going days were “A Hard Day’s Night,” Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and “Marnie,” “Becket,” “The Graduate” and the first two Bond pictures as well as “You Only Live Twice” and just about all the Jerry Lewis movies. The last picture I recall seeing at the Senate was Joan Crawford’s 1968 circus-of-horrors flick “Berserk.” As the 60s wore on, the Senate began slipping adult-themed films like “I Am Curious (Yellow)” and “Carmen Baby” into the mix, and by 1970 had flipped to X-rated fare entirely. I don’t know why I remember this, but the last mainstream picture to play the Senate was 1970’s “Beneath the Planet of the Apes.” “Deep Throat” played there for months without the protest it incurred in other towns. And to think I’d seen sweet Julie Andrews as “Mary Poppins” on the same screen just a few years before!

Brandt Theaters, which booked the suburban Trans-Lux, took over management of the Senate in the late 60s. They briefly called it the “Trans-Lux Senate” in newspaper ads and I recall seeing a poster at the Trans-Lux promoting a revival of “The African Queen” at the Senate. Brandt was certainly running it when it went all XXX and ran it well into the 70s, but how long they retained management I don’t know, nor do I know who ran the Senate in its later days.

I think a lot of people were happy to see the Senate closed and demolished for the Hilton Hotel. The entire northeast quadrant of Market Square had become a boarded-up eyesore and the Senate was thought an embarrassment to the Capital City. In the early 70s I worked the night shift at WKBO radio in the same block and frequently parked in front of the Senate. The kind of people who were hanging out downtown when I left work at midnight were pretty scary. Hookers, drug dealers, people looking for hookers and drug dealers, drunks and rowdy kids with nothing to do. I was only 19 or 20 myself. I must have been crazy!

In its day the Senate was a really attractive, modern theater. It had a short lobby with a concession stand, and the rest rooms were downstairs, where there was a spacious lounge. In my memory (which may be faulty but it’s all I have to go on) the auditorium had very comfortably-padded seats of a pale red color with matching curtains covering the screen. The walls were a deep blue with an off-white trim along the bottom. One thing I always thought was cool were the two blue neon clocks over the exits on either side of the screen. Something most people probably didn’t know about the Senate: there was a large pool hall underneath the auditorium, accessible by a small doorway near the back and down a long flight of stairs. My dad walked me through there once when I was a kid, just so I could see it.

I wish I had photos of the Senate, and I wish it could have been retained in some way. Perhaps had it not been running XXX flicks for the last 20 years of its existence, in its own way graphically representing the overall decline of Market Square, the city might have looked on it more favorably as a candidate for renovation and revival as part of the Hilton complex. As it was, they were just happy to be rid of it.

TheaterBuff1 on May 14, 2006 at 5:58 pm

In reading about the Senate Theater I am truly amazed by how the long list of the many classic theaters William Harold Lee had designed just continues to grow and grow, though it’s sad that the discovery of many of these comes too late. For with so many of his masterfully designed theaters either they’ve been torn down, or, they’re now under the control of those most determined to see that they never get properly restored as they were originally intended to be. Which is why it’s good — at the very least — that he designed so many. A truly futurist thinker, he must have well understood the law of averages in that if you design enough theaters in various different locations that at least some of them will survive. And though the Senate Theater didn’t make the list of those that did, to some extent this is made up for by our own keeping records of what was lost and the specifics of why. So thanks, John, for this latest addition to Cinema Treasures' archives!

carolgrau on May 12, 2006 at 2:06 am

What a nice theatre it was, it was the first theatre I ever worked that had 3 projectors. Simplex xls, peerless magnarc lamps, 2 generators, and the old time rca sound system. E.Richard Bennett, who was the business agent for local #488, had worked there for years.The reels were 4000 ft.capasity,inside 6000. ft. magazines. The projection staff was Bennett, Zinn, and Cover. One night Zinn left and left the center projector #2 on all night. When Mr. Bennett came in the next day almost the whole reel was chopped into little pieces. That was the end of Zinn. My Uncle Walt Finch took over for Zinn, as his first Union job. I got to work there part time off and on when I was in the area. Harrisburg, Pa. had some beautifull theatres. Right aroound the corner from the Senate was the Colonial, and 3 blocks up 2nd, st.on one of the side streets was the State theatre, witch was a beautifull theatre in its own right. Winding marble stairs,in a marble lobby, a hexagon boxoffice. The only theatre that out did the State in the area was the Hershey community theatre. John see what you can come up with on any of these. There is allot of theatre history there.