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Let's go to the Theater

Judge John Pratt Elkin had a dream of providing a quality theater to give the people of Indiana and the surrounding area a place of amusement equal to any community the size of Indiana in Pennsylvania.

However, Judge Elkin’s death on October 3, 1915 forced a stop to his plans. Thankfully, following his death, his wife, Adda P. Elkin, followed through on her husband’s vision and purchased the Marshall building at Philadelphia Street and Carpenter Avenue in the summer of 1923. She then announced that construction of a new theater would soon start.

John Pratt Elkin

Within a few weeks, work commenced with the removal of the rear of the Marshall building and the remodeling of the front. This work did require some time and delayed the actual work of construction of the new building.

The Indiana Theater opened on July 16, 1924. There were two balconies, seating for about 1,100, a well-equipped stage, and, as part of the richly appointed décor, a huge crystal chandelier that glittered and sparkled like a blue-white diamond.

Stanley Elkin, son of Judge and Mrs. Elkin, served as manager of the new theater with George McGown as managing director.

Not long after the Theater opened, management signed a contract with the Keith circuit for four vaudeville acts to be presented in connection with the feature silent screen pictures each week. The interests of Keith Vaudeville was presented in the Indiana Theater until Mrs. Elkin purchased the Ritz Theater from Punxsutawney.

Around the same time that Mrs. Elkin had purchased the Marshall building and began construction of the Indiana Theater, a Punxsutawney theater syndicate purchased property on Philadelphia Street and Taylor Avenue and started the construction of the Ritz Theater.

The Ritz opened in the spring of 1924, shortly before the opening of the Indiana Theater. For two years there was an intense rivalry and friendly war for patronage between the two. That is until Mrs. Elkin purchased the Ritz on August 14, 1926.

Mr. McGown resigned in 1926, and Stanley Elkin assumed the management of both theaters. Wallace Nordby, the head usher and advertising manager of the Indiana Theater, was appointed to serve as assistant manager.

Managing two theaters meant coming up with a set schedule of when things would be happening at each, so the Ritz showed silent films six days a week, while the Indiana Theater ran silent films except for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday which were reserved for stage shows.

Both theaters had pipe organists, at the Ritz, Dick Stewart played a 2M-6R Style D. Wurlitzer and the Indiana Theater had a two manual Marr and Colton. Paul Fleeger served as the organist at the Indiana Theater, which also employed a full-time orchestra. Elmer Smathers, a trombonist in this orchestra, later became associated with the Walt Disney Studios.

Some of the well-known celebrities to appear at the Indiana theater included Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy, and Edgar Kennedy.

On February 26, 1928, a little more than three years after opening, the Indiana Theater was closed and work started on converting the theater’s upper levels into three floors of office space. While management retained a smaller theater on the ground floor for showing motion pictures only. The Indiana Theater reopened on November 26, 1928.

At the Ritz, a Marr and Colton organ was installed on September 3, 1927. Paul Fleeger had left and Dick Stewart remained as organist.

The Ritz became the major theater in town and began presenting live stage attractions. Road show unit circuits began to be booked instead of straight vaudeville. These circuits sent different companies each week and presented a new show each night. Among the featured stage performers were: Hoot Gibson and Jane Gayle, who later married Oscar Levant. Ray Bolger best known for his “I’m in Love with Amy” dance and song act was another of the Ritz performers.

Bill Neff, master musician and a native of Indiana, was a frequent performer on the Ritz stage. Jimmy Stewart made his first stage appearance as a professional in one of Neff’s shows on the Ritz stage. Prior to that appearance, Jimmy was on the amateur stage in school and college.

Sometimes there were stage shows and concerts booked at the Ritz that were not profitable even though being of high quality. For example, a concert by the U.S. Army Band with Captain William J. Stannard as conductor was booked. The theater management paid $1,500 for the Band and another $1,500 in advertising. Box office receipts for the performance totaled $1,500.

The Ritz was also used for community groups and the State Teachers College for their shows and graduation exercises. This was a common occurrence prior to the construction of Fisher Auditorium.

A new 3M and 8R Robert Morton Pipe Organ replaced the Marr and Colton in August 1928, at a cost of $45,000, first being publicly used on August 13, 1928 with Dick Stewart as the organist. The new organ was equipped with a lift which brought the cream and gold console up to stage level from the pit. Stewart left Indiana in the fall of ‘28 and was replaced by Hal Beech. Local organists, Kitty Lockard and Dorothy Winton, occasionally substituted at the Ritz.

The interior of the theater provided patrons with large paintings on the ceiling, gold leaf design around the proscenium, concave dome with cloudlike design, and colored lights. The dome had to be constructed locally with wood after architects deemed the design to be impossible to do.

On June 1, 1929, Biophone Sound systems were placed in both the Ritz and Indiana Theaters. On July 30, 1930, the Ritz was closed for extensive redecorating at a cost of more than $18,000 along with the installation of an RCA sound system.

The Ritz recouped on Labor Day, Monday September 1, 1930, with the promise of top quality pictures and programs in a high quality theater. Unfortunately, Stanley Elkin died on August 25, 1932 as a result of an automobile accident. Wallace Nordby, Sr. leased both theaters on October 1, 1932.

During the early 1930s, an interested group of ushers gathered at the theaters, helping keep organ music alive with projects they conceived. Ross Steetle, an Indiana radio man, built a homemade transmitter and the theater ushers developed a radio show going out over their own private radio station WRG. This was done without FCC sanction.

Programs originated from the Ritz’s stage with Hal Beech at the organ and Kenny Walker, an usher, lending his tenor voice for most of the entertainment. After WRG played hide-and-seek with the FCC for a reasonable time, the project was closed.

Audiences at the Ritz during the early 30s remember the organ rising from the pit and seemingly making music without an organist playing. The trick was accomplished by a hidden keyboard wired into the relay from back stage.

Mrs. Elkin died on September 16, 1934, and on February 4, 1935, the Ritz and Indiana Theaters were sold to Michael Manos and the Monessen Amusement Company of Greensburg for $220,000. The theaters then became a part of that firm’s 37 theater chain.

Until the early 1960s, Peter Manos, brother of Michael Manos, served as the manager of the Ritz Theater, which name had changed to the Manos Theater.

Manos made plans for alterations and renovations at both buildings including improved ventilation, interior redecoration, new seats and elaborate lighting displays for the marquees. Attention was centered on the movies instead of stage productions. The Ritz was rechristened The Manos in October 1936.

Consistent upgrades were made throughout the years to keep up with changes in the film industry, but the end eventually came for the two theaters. On September 24, 1980, Manos Enterprises announced the closure of the Manos Theater. The Indiana Theater continued showing films until July 15, 1982, when it closed because of “general economic conditions.” On that same day the firm took possession of the Cinema Theater at the Regency, which was added to the four-screen Cinemas IV that Manos already operated at the Indiana Mall.

There was hope for the Indiana Theater, as Don Woodward, general manager for Manos Enterprises announced that the theater would reopen depending on the public response, unfortunately on November 18, 1982, the theater was closed for the final time.

The trend moved toward clusters of small theaters, nothing near the 1,000 seat theaters. One box office now serves multiple minitheaters, there are no longer ushers standing by to escort patrons to their seats as existed in the heyday of the Ritz and Indiana. But oh how the times change, a theater once again graces Philadelphia Street with The Indiana Theater being open at 637 Philadelphia Street, are we going to see the resurgence of the heyday of the theater?


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