157 Bala Avenue,
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Opened as the Egyptian Theatre on September 15, 1926, in the Montgomery County suburb of Philadelphia. The movie palace was designed by Philadelphia architects Hoffman & Henon, and had 1,450 seats including a balcony. The theatre was opened as a Warner Brothers theatre. The facade has an Egyptian Revival theme which extends to the two side wings containing retail stores.
After a vestibule lobby is the main lobby. A set of grand stairs leads upstairs to the mezzanine promenade and restroom suites. Best viewed from the mezzanine is a mural of Cleopatra and her attendants. The mens suite has a furnished lounge. The balcony is no longer available to the public and is now partly used by the current projection booth. The original projection booth, no longer used, is above.
In 1955, A.M. Ellis Theatres took over the theatre from Stanley Warner, renamed it the Bala Theatre, and operated it into the 1980’s. In 1987, the Sotolidis family purchased the theatre to save it from closing. The Bala Theatre is featured in David Naylor’s 1987 book, the National Trust Guide ‘Great American Movie Theatres’. Photographs taken during the run of “The Mask” (1994) show the exterior and auditorium and are on view at the website of HABS (Historic American Buildings Survey) of the Library of Congress. 1993 epics shown include “Gettysburg” and “Schindler’s List”.
In early-November 1994, the Bala Theatre closed for triplexing, and reopened March 3, 1995 with “Boys on the Side”, “Billy Madison” and “Shallow Grave”. Architect Mitch Abromowitz of Fountainhead Associates in Lansdale designed the sensitive triplexing of the huge auditorium. Abromowitz was reported in an April 10, 1995 Philadelphia Inquirer article as stating that he had worked 30 years on theatre renovations including for owners who only inserted walls down the middle of their auditoriums despite the historic architecture. He was pleased that brothers Constance and Isaac Sotolidis, the Bala Theatre co-owners, were concerned about keeping the historic interior. Contractors viewed the sensitive triplexing as a loving rejuvenation of the theatre, and trusting the owners, were willing to accept deferred payment for their fees for the expensive undertaking.
The still very large middle auditorium with 427 seats has the stage constructed for vaudeville, the proscenium arch with its huge movie screen, organ lofts, and ornate front exits. Also on view in the middle auditorium is most of the gorgeous plaster Egyptian ceiling relief, including the four Egyptian figures. Part of the plaster ceiling extravaganza is depicted in a 1928 Voigt Company catalog. Two additional auditoriums created from the side seating have 192 seats each and screens that are 21 feet wide, 11 feet tall.
After the triplexing, the Bala Theatre was very well attended. Movies shown in the middle, main auditorium in 1995 included “Apollo 13” and “Casino”. The Bala Theatre has shown both mainstream and arthouse films, but since the 1995 triplexing has shown mainly arthouse films. Curtains (which in the side auditoriums are vertical) ceased to be used in 1996. In 1998, Clearview Cinemas began to operate the theatre under a lease, and movies shown that year by Clearview Cinemas in the middle auditorium included “Life is Beautiful” and “Shakespeare in Love”. On June 29, 2000, AMC TV hosted a free screening of “Psycho” (1960) with Janet Leigh appearing in person. Many Woody Allen movies have been presented. First run movies, especially art films, have long been the primary fare at the Bala Theatre, though in recent years mainstream 3D movies have also been shown. In June 2013, Bow-Tie Cinema took over, but on August 9, 2013, Bow-Tie Cinemas relinquished this theatre and the only other Pennsylvania theatre that it and Clearview had operated, the Anthony Wayne Theatre, to Reel Cinemas, the company run by Greg Wax that operates the nearby Narberth Theatre.
After the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, on December 1, 2014, the Bala Theatre was closed with “Fury” in one auditorium and “The Judge” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” in the other auditorium, all presented on 35mm film. The middle auditorium, the only one to have been equipped with a digital projector, had been closed since early-August 2014 after a showing of “A Most Wanted Man” since the digital projector was broken.
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