Colonial Theatre

280 Market Street,
Harrisburg, PA 17101

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LorinWeigard on September 18, 2014 at 10:20 am

The story I heard about the Colonial from a veteran vaudvillian who had a dance team with his wife (and later was Mae West’s road manager), they loved playing the Colonial; it was a short skip and a jump from the train station with their trunks and props down the alley to the Colonial’s backstage door.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on May 12, 2014 at 2:38 pm

I’ve found a number of errors in the NRHP’s listings, usually misspellings and sometimes wrong dates. I doubt that they’ll ever get around to correcting them. But “Flin, Cla” is one of the oddest things I’ve seen there. It sounds like it would be the name of a character in a bad sword and sorcery novel.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on May 11, 2014 at 12:49 am

I wonder if gremlins got into somebody’s keyboard along the way, and the “Flin, Cla” that the NRHP document (cited in the very first comment on this theater by LostMemory) names as one of the architects or builders of the Colonial Theatre is actually Fuller Claflin? Claflin did design at least one theater in Harrisburg- the Lyceum (later the Orpheum), built in 1903 and reportedly demolished in 1925 to make way for the State Theatre. I’m skeptical that anyone has ever borne the odd name Cla Flin.

Ross Care
Ross Care on May 6, 2011 at 11:15 pm

Ar the risk of being compulsive, here is a lighter variation of the Colonial color transparency which shows up the marquee better.
Take your choice:
View link

Ross Care
Ross Care on May 6, 2011 at 10:13 pm

This is a grainy and not especially good crop of the Colonial marquee. I wish I had a better one.

But my FLICKr caption give a detailed description of the unusual L-shaped entrance/vestibule area which had doors on both Market St. and 3rd St. and enclosed a commercial business which was on the corner of those streets.

It’s also of interest because the marquee is no longer advertising movies, but Harrisburg’s traditional balloon parade (which I remember from when I was a kid) and an “Elvis” concert!

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Ross Care
Ross Care on May 6, 2011 at 10:03 pm

Just found this color slide of the Colonial Theatre:
View link

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on November 21, 2010 at 3:42 am

The Colonial Theatre is mentioned in a magazine at least as early as 1913, when the January 13 issue of trade journal Electrical Review and Western Electrician said “The Daupin Electrical Supplies Company of Harrisburg, Pa., …recently wired the Colonial Theater, in Harrisburg….”

More interesting is an item in a magazine called New York Topics and International Courier, issue of June 27, 1914:[quote]“‘Local talent is now being enlisted in the 'Moviement,’ according to an advertisement appearing in newspapers of the Pennsylvania Capital:

“‘WANTEDâ€"Motion picture plays, motion picture players. The Colonial Theater announces the formation of a motion picture dramatic company, to be composed of Harrisburg actors and to pose for films made in Harrisburg. Harrisburg comedies, Harrisburg dramas. Harrisburg tragedies. Company will be made up at once. If you want to be a motion picture player, apply now for a position in the companyâ€"no experience required. Scenarios wanted. Cash prizes for the best motion picture stories with scenes laid in Harrisburg. Write your own motion picture and see it played on the screen. Full particulars upon inquiry at the Colonial Theater. If you can act, become a motion picture actor If you can write, become a motion picture author.’

“Well, if Gifford Pinchot wins that Keystone State Senatorship there will be a fine bunch of Penrose machine politicians available as ‘movie actors’ in Harrisburg.”[/quote]I’ve found nothing else about this attempt to launch a local movie production industry in Harrisburg, but it apparently did nothing to help business at the Colonial. The July 31, 1915, issue of The Moving Picture World ran this item:

“The Colonial theater, Harrisburg, Pa., prominent vaudeville and moving picture establishment, recently closed its doors to the public and will remain so for several months to come, according to announcement made by the management. No definite reasons were assigned for the temporary closing of the theater, but it is generally supposed that the closing Is a matter of business policy decided upon to prevent operation at a loss, for at this season of the year the theatrical business is very poor. The coming to Harrisburg of an International League baseball team has had a decided effect upon the attendance of the afternoon matinees at the theaters.”

Ross Care
Ross Care on August 14, 2010 at 3:12 pm

A slightly improved copy the photo of the interior of the Colonial after the wall collapsed in 1983. I believe the first version of this is now deleted from FLICKr. Also just added a new photo of the demolition of the Rio around 1955.

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carolgrau on February 17, 2010 at 11:20 pm

I remember coming downstairs one day and dad was sitting at the table actually crying because he had to spend money to get new lenses, and add on to his drive-in screen for this new thing called Cinemascope, 70MM damn near gavee him heart failure, but we dealt with it and all was good..

carolgrau on February 17, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Damn shame typical theatre owners get all the money you can make and don’t pay out one dime for anything. My dad was the same way, never wanted to pay out one penny.

Ross Care
Ross Care on February 17, 2010 at 10:16 am

Well, then it was even a greater loss to what little was left of the Harrisburg theater scene.

carolgrau on February 17, 2010 at 9:20 am

It was alot bigger than you think it was. I recall all the steps I had to go up yo get to the booth. The balcony itself stretched out pretty far from the booth.I will say it had over a thousand seats.

Ross Care
Ross Care on February 17, 2010 at 2:49 am

PS: I can’t imagine the Colonial having over a thousand seats, even with the balcony!

Ross Care
Ross Care on February 17, 2010 at 2:44 am

The color I associate with the Colonial is olive-drab. The curtains and other fabric hangings were that color. Yes, it always seemed dark there too.
I managed to take a photo of the proscenium after the theater collapsed. It gave me something of a pang to see those hangings that I remembered so well from my childhood still suspended there and waiting for the bulldozer. Perhaps I’ll put this shot on my blog at some point.
I thought they sort of spruced up the State for the premiere of CinemaScope in 1953. It was probably the largest theater in Harrisburg.
I really did not attend it in its latter days. Friends from Lancaster mention that they saw “2001” there. I’m not sure if it was first run or a re-issue.

1posterfan4sure on February 16, 2010 at 1:22 pm

One thing I remember about the Colonial (in addition to all the things above) was that it always seemed so dark, even when the lights were on. I tried to examine the walls one time and they looked like some shade of brown. Perhaps it was just years of collected grime. The Colonial did have side boxes and a balcony, none of which were ever open at any time I went there. I always thought the Colonial seemed neglected (faded elegance was a good description, Ross), especially compared to the co-owned State. Its elegance was faded too but not to the degree of the Colonial.

Ross Care
Ross Care on February 12, 2010 at 1:45 am

The Colonial had a curious L-shaped lobby/vestibule, a kind of arcade. There was a main entrance behind the ticket booth on Market St. When you got to the doors to enter the actual theater there was also a hallway to the left that led to an exit on 3rd St. The stairs to the balcony were to the right of this lobby as I recall.
The interior space at the rear of the auditorium was rather cramped. There was a downstairs lounge (or men’s room) there.
It did become run down but maintained a sort of faded elegance. There was a rather ornate water fountain with eerie orange lighting. I think there may have been box seats too, from its days as an old theater.
I remember the Colonial as small and narrow. But it had a very high ceiling (so it seemed to me as a small child) and a rather steep balcony that ran right up to the projection windows.
I remember seeing “The Day the Earth Stood Still” from the very top of the balcony and being so shaken up by Bernard Herrmann’s Main Title music that I wanted to leave right away. Fortunately my father urged me to stay, as I ended up loving the film. (And still do).

carolgrau on February 9, 2010 at 12:32 am

What a dump,, Was run by an idiot manager named John, can’t remermber his last name. Nice booth, 2 Brenkart BX100’s and Peerless magnarc lamps, Old RCA soundheads, and of course RCA amps… The thetra itself was like a dump, really left go… I remember going to work and John would hand you 2 boxes, one had positive and one had negative carbon butts.. That had to last your shift, we destroyed alot of carbon savers… Was real sad to see it go downhill the way it did.. I worked there in it’s hetday and ran greeat movies,

1posterfan4sure on September 18, 2007 at 2:55 pm

But for an unfortunate accident brought on by years of neglect, the Colonial Theater might have survived as a performing arts center. After the public relations black eye the city got from the demolition of the grand old State Theater in 1974, and a new administration more sympathetic to preservation, the city was anticipating the renovation of the Colonial to its former splendor. But it was not to be.

I recall the Colonial during my downtown movie going days in the late 50s, 60s and early 70s as heavy on action, horror, sci fi, teen pictures, anything from AIP and Toho. William Castle’s gimmicky thrillers always played the Colonial, including “House on Haunted Hill,” during which a skeleton on wires appeared from one of the side boxes and drifted over the audiences’ heads on its way up to the balcony. The prestigious pictures usually played the co-owned State, although I saw “El Cid” and “A Man for All Seasons” at the Colonial, so there were rare exceptions. The first movie I remember seeing at the Colonial was “The Time Machine” in 1960. The last was the X-rated cartoon “Fritz the Cat” in 1973.

The Colonial seated 1,095, although the balcony and side boxes were never open any time I attended. A former vaudeville theater, the Colonial had an equipped stage and an orchestra pit. The interior style was Italian Renaissance, reminiscent of an opera house. It opened as a theater in 1912.

The Colonial, the State and the Rio (closed in 1953) were part of the Wilmer & Vincent chain, and in the 50s and 60s were owned by Fabian Theaters. United Artists leased the Colonial and State from Fabian in the early 70s. The Colonial outlasted the State by a couple of years, turning to blaxploitation, martial arts and urban-themed action pictures, often on double-bills. I don’t recall the Colonial playing XXX features, but it may have happened occasionally, and there was certainly some soft-core in the mix. The Colonial limped to a quiet close in December 1976, with the marquee set-up of its last feature, a martial arts picture, remaining on the marquee for years thereafter. The building was subsequently bought and sold by a series of investors, in 1978, 1979 and 1982, and in the ensuing years the empty theater deteriorated badly. A general-alarm fire set by an arsonist caused further damage in 1978.

“Colonial Theater Collapses” read the headline in the Sunday Patriot-News on September 11th, 1983. The day before, shortly after 12 noon, the roof of the Colonial collapsed, pushing out the east side wall and showering 3rd Street with bricks, debris and a cloud of dust. The owners reported that the roof had been sagging noticeably for several months but said that there had been no indication that the theater was in danger of collapse, although a city inspector had reported that the walls were bulging the Friday before. That Saturday it finally gave out, bringing down a large part of the roof and the east side wall. There were no injuries. No cars were passing by at the time, although four vehicles parked along 3rd St. were demolished.

It could have been much worse. In true Hollywood fashion, a woman pushing a baby carriage had cleared the wall by less than five minutes before the collapse. On any weekday, the 3rd Street bus stop would have been crowded with people. A man who had parked his car beside the theater was standing at the corner of Market and 3rd when the wall gave out, crushing his vehicle. Adjacent to the theater’s west wall, a private club that on a weekday would have been filled with a lunchtime crowd was severely damaged. And strangest of all, a crew was set to begin working on the Colonial’s weakened roof the following Monday, shoring it up from the inside. The city had purchased a tarp for $6,500 which was to be placed over the roof after it had been braced and stabilized, in anticipation of restoring the Colonial as a performing arts center. It seemed as if the grand old lady had given up her life at just the right moment.

The auditorium portion of the Colonial was quickly demolished. The Market Street façade and front portion of the building, which dated back to 1836 as the Wilson, Derr and Locheil Hotels, was spared, minus the marquee, and an office building was built behind it where the Colonial Theater had for so many years, through two world wars, two major floods, the advent of TV and a dying downtown, entertained the people of Pennsylvania’s capital city.

Credit where credit is due: Details of the Colonial Theater collapse were derived from articles written by Mary Bradley, Mary Klaus and Randy Myers of the Harrisburg PA Patriot-News and published in 1983, and one anonymous article published in 1982. Everything else is from my own research and memory.