3427 Derry Street,
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The Paxtang Theater was a small, second-run venue in a community in the Harrisburg area called Paxtang. Sporting around 500 hard, narrow seats, it opened in 1937 with a romantic comedy “Dodsworth” starring Walter Huston.
The marquee was large and elaborate for a neighborhood theater, extending out over a small grassy courtyard area with a sidewalk leading to the box office. The facade featured black, green and beige Carerra glass. Two showcases for 40 x 60 posters were on either side, along with windows for lobby cards. The fancy exterior contrasted the rather Spartan interior. A small outer lobby (with poster windows) led to a modest lobby. A small candy counter was on the right, and on the left, two large poster showcases. Between the lobby and the auditorium was a short partition about four feet high. The auditorium was longer than it was wide, and was painted a rosy color, the carpeting maroon with gold swirls. There were three sections of seating: one on each side with five seats across, and a center section with 10 seats across. The Paxtang Theater was clearly built for function, not for beauty.
I don’t know who ran the Paxtang Theater in those days, but in 1946 it was taken over by Dr. Samuel Goldstein, who over the next 20 years became one of the town’s best-known citizens, even though he never lived there. In the early days ‘Doc’ had a little stage show before the Saturday matinee and a special celebration for those having birthdays. Songs were sung and a fine time was had by all. Several movies were shown every week, two or three days at a time, as neighborhood theaters did back then.
Doc held on against the advent of television in the 1950’s but the little touches began slipping away. Movies played for a week straight by this time. The little parties ended but the matinees lived on, and are a fond memory of mine, spending almost every Saturday in the dark watching the great and not-so-great on the Paxtang’s somewhat tattered screen. As the 1960’s dawned the theater began getting shabby and shopworn. In November of 1966, Doc surprised everyone by closing the doors and walking away. We had no hint it would happen. Doc and his wife, who took tickets and kept order at night, were in their middle-60’s, and perhaps they thought it was time to retire. They placed a thanks and farewell message on the marquee and left our lives forever. Doc’s last show was “Born Free”.
The Paxtang Theater wasn’t dead, though. A year and a half later it was nicely renovated and reopened by a fellow who operated the Rainbow Roller Rink in Mechanicsburg. The new projection, screen and sound were top-notch, the marquee was given a spectacular neon treatment, and the theater triumphantly reopened with a packed house for Disney’s “The Jungle Book”. On the inside gold paint replaced the drab rosy color, with contrasting red carpeting, and a partition and doors were placed between the lobby and the auditorium. But the seats were just as hard and narrow as ever!
The theater held on for the next several years, even taking a stab at running foreign and art films for a while, but ultimately the changing demographics of the town and nearby multiple cinemas brought the Paxtang Theater to an end in 1974. The last film to grace its screen was “American Graffiti”. The next day the building was taken over by the Harrisburg Gymnastics School, which converted the theater into a gymnasium, and that is how it remains today.
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