Within the fabric of the Colonial Theatre’s history lies the story of people who have found the courage to follow their dreams. Norman Cousins once said that, “What holds people back today is not the pressures of realities but the absence of dreams. If dreams are good enough, no realities can stand against them.”
Phoenixville was, and still is, home to more than a few of these daring prospectors of uncharted waters, of big dreamers. And the Colonial Theater remains with us today because of them.
Before the Colonial there was Harry Brownback
Harry Brownback’s youth was spent among the beautiful rolling hills of Chester County during the late nineteenth century. His father ran a tavern that his family had owned since 1736 and served as pastor of the nearby German Reformed Church, also built by his forebearers in 1741. When his mother was widowed, Harry’s older brother, Ben, took over managing the family tavern (The Seven Stars Inn on Route 23 in Spring City). Not much else is known about Harry’s earlier years, other than after he married he and his bride lived for a time at 145 Gay Street. We also know that Harry was ambitious and hardworking. He became secretary and treasurer of Griffin-Smith-Hill Pottery, producers of Majolica, which was located at the bottom of Church Street. In 1901 a fire and a number of financial setbacks forced Harry and the rest of the board of directors to make a difficult and painful decision. The world famous pottery plant would have to close down.
Brownback sets out to build his dream
Out of work, Harry Brownback found something he hadn’t had before, time on his hands. He had time to pursue his dream. Harry knew what many dreamers before him knew: that we can’t become who we’re meant to be by staying who we are. And in the difficulties that ended his career in industry, Harry saw an opportunity. Harry had always loved the theater and often told his friends that he dreamed of bringing top quality productions to Phoenixville. He dreamed of seeing stage shows, right in town, that would, as he said, “satisfy New Yorkers but at a fraction of the cost to theater patrons.”
With his new found freedom and his income from the sale of the plant, he purchased two adjoining properties on Bridge Street in downtown Phoenixville, next to what then housed the town’s newspaper “The Daily Republican.”
At the time Phoenixville was a thriving industrial town known as the “Gateway to Valley Forge,” and had a population of just fewer than 2,000. When his theater was completed it shared the still unpaved Bridge Street with, among other businesses, a fish monger, a furrier, a paperhanger, a “Bargain 5 & 10 Cent Store,” a tailor, a confectioner, a jeweler, a hotel, a hardware store and an assortment of dry good stores. Harry, and his Colonial Opera House, built at a total cost of $30,000, came to life.
|The first stage show is held on Saturday, September 5th. Internationally known actor, Fred E. Wright, stars in the musical extravaganza The Beauty Doctor. The first movie presentation, a series of four one-reelers lasting 40 minutes, was shown on Saturday, December 19th.|
|D. W. Griffith’s controversial two-hour civil war movie, The Birth of a Nation, plays at the Colonial. Mary Pickford, on her way to the Rajah Theatre in Reading, PA, visited her friend Harry Brownback at the theatre.|
|Another of Brownback’s friends, Thurston, the world-famous magician, performed at the Colonial.|
|The Great Houdini performed at the Colonial and, before an audience of 300, freed himself from a burglar-proof safe. The Colonial put together it’s own orchestra lead by Fred Neiman, Phoenixville’s local mortician, as well as an excellent violinist. The theatre purchased a Wurlitzer organ and presented twenty minute organ recitals just before the Fox Movietone News. Silent features continued to be accompanied by the piano.|
|By now, Phoenixville had three downtown theatres. Sample fare included Theda Bara in The Forbidden Path, at the Colonial; Kitty Gordon in Divine Sacrifice at the New-Phoenix at Main and Hall Streets, and William S. Hart in Dusty Trails at the Savoy on North Main Street.|
|The Colonial presented its last stage show, Very Good Eddie, which had begun it’s successful run on Broadway in 1915.|
|The first talkie, The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson is shown at The Colonial.|
|The Phoenixville Kiwanis Club staged The Mikado. It ran for two nights and starred George Andrews, the president of the Kiwanis Club.|
The Torch is Passed
The Colonial went on to serve the people of Phoenixville through two World Wars, the Great Depression and the tumultuous 1960’s. It served a diverse assemblage of dedicated owners who loved it and worked, sometimes against tremendous odds, to keep it alive. But they each shared Brownback’s vision of bringing the best programs at the best prices to Phoenixville.
With the introduction of sound in film in the 1920’s and for the next three decades the Colonial enjoyed it’s movie hey-day, while never abandoning it’s original goal of presenting live theatre. In the late 1950’s, owners Coane and Pizor passed the mantle of ownership to a group of businessmen headed by George Silverman who owned a number of movie theaters in Philadelphia. The group refurbished the theater, adding new seats, a larger screen, improved heating and air conditioning and even had a small bookstore in a section of the theater.
In 1957 Good News Productions produced The Blob starring Steve McQueen. Scenes from the movie were filmed at the Colonial and other spots in and around Phoenixville. You’ll notice in the movie that the marquee proudly announces that the theatre is “healthfully air conditioned.”
Another decade passed with relative success. Silverman’s group was primarily interested in a profit but also cared about keeping the theater available for local talent. Popular Hollywood films were the standard fare with an occasional local benefit show.
Despite the renovations, the theatre proved no match for the growing industry of large chain theatres that were quietly spreading into the suburbs. In 1963 when the Rialto was torn down to make way for the new YMCA at Main and Church Streets, it was clear that older movie houses were in trouble. Within the next few years the Silverman group sold the Colonial to local Phoenixville merchant, Walter Straub.
At the time Straub owned three other businesses in Phoenixville including two dress shops on Bridge Street. Straub struggled to keep the theatre going. By 1975 his hope for the future of the theater rested on the shoulders of Eric Knudsen. They made a deal that would enable Knudsen to take over management of the theatre with a lease-for-purchase agreement.
Knudsen, Breneman and LaRosa
Just in his early twenties, Knudsen, fueled by a passion born of memories of visits to Radio City with his father and the energy of raw youth, brought life back to the Colonial. The stage came alive with concerts, an annual magic show, and a Halloween show. He presented Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing performed by the National Players from Washington, D.C. and a live Wild West Show with Buffalo Bill. On Saturdays he held children’s matinees and charged ten cents, recouping the cost for the film in candy and popcorn revenue.
Knudsen, while living in an apartment behind the theatre’s mezzanine, put all his free time into painstakingly restoring much of the theatre. He repaired a leaky roof and, armed with just a cleaning agent and elbow grease, removed the years of accumulated soot and grease that covered the spectacular mural above the lobby. He carpeted and wallpapered the men’s and women’s lounges, and even wired the projection screen with counter weights so it could be raised up into the fly space to make more stage room for live shows.
The same year that Knudsen took over management of the theater, he was contacted by Jim Breneman, a young accountant from the area who was looking for a place to store his twenty-ton Kimball organ. Breneman’s own dream, shared by his friend and master organ restorer Sam LaRosa, was to use the theatre to stage organ recitals. Knudsen liked their ideas and offered them the use of the theatre.
But by 1978 Knudsen was beginning to realize that despite his passion for the theatre, he lacked the financial acumen to operate in the black. Unable to garner enough financial support to continue running the theatre, he reluctantly bowed out of the lease-for-purchase agreement with Straub and Breneman agreed to buy it.
In 1966, Jim Breneman was a student at Drexel University. He and his friends went to an organ recital on campus. Hearing the majestic chords of a classical organ he was enthralled. “It was the greatest thing since indoor plumbing,” Jim recalled. He was only 21 years-old at the time, but he knew that one day he would have an organ to play the beautiful music that so captured him that evening. On Friday, October 13, 1967 Jim signed a contract to buy a long dormant 38 year-old Kimball organ, in bad disrepair, from the owners of the State Theatre on 52nd and Chestnut Streets in West Philadelphia. The organ was a bargain at $1,510. Undaunted by his lack of knowledge and skills at organ repair, Jim, with with his friend Sam LaRosa, made arrangements to install the organ in the Brookline Theatre in Havertown, Pennsylvania.
In 1973 a heavy storm hit Havertown and the Brookline Theater, badly damaging the organ. The floor had been previously water damaged by a storm in 1928 and, at the time, never allowed to completely dry out before it was repaired. When the 1973 storm flooded the theater again, the Kimball, sitting on what was an already weakened floor, went through it, crashing down into the theater’s basement. With his friend, Sam La Rosa, Jim moved his dearly loved and badly broken organ to a garage. Then, at a point where many others would have been defeated, Jim began to look for a new home for his beloved Kimball organ. His search brought him to the Colonial Theater and Erik Knudsen.
The Colonial was now primarily a movie theater. But Breneman continued to try to attract local talent for live stage shows and worked at building local interest in his organ recitals. At one time, during Breneman’s tenure, the famed organist Larry Ferrari played on the organ at the Colonial, declaring it a “magnificent instrument.” In 1980 Don Kinnier, from Ephrata, Pennsylvania, became the regular organist for Sunday afternoon recitals. The recitals shared the Sunday program of silent films, sing-a-longs, stage shows and the occasional vaudeville act.
Illness forced Breneman to curtail his hours in 1985 and his friend, LaRosa, began to share the theater’s day-to-day operations. In 1991, after a continual decline in his health, Jim Breneman died of heart failure. On October 13th of that year a memorial concert was held in his honor at the Colonial. The following year LaRosa purchased the Colonial and the Kimball organ, hoping to continue Breneman’s dream for the theatre and the organ. But after a four-year effort at trying to build a broader audience for his first love, organ recitals, and unable to support the theatre with receipts from feature films, LaRosa sold the organ to the Chicago Historical Society and closed the doors of the Colonial Theatre.
On December 8, 1996 the Phoenixville Area Economic Development Corporation (PAEDCO), under the direction of Barbara Cohen, purchased the Colonial Theatre with an eye toward restoring it for use as a community theater. At the same time Mary Foote and Trish Himes, both Phoenixville residents and faithful patrons of the Colonial Theatre, shared a strong interest in saving it. Both women also saw the potential in the area for a community theatre. Out of their shared vision, the Association for the Colonial Theater (ACT) was formed. In 1997 ACT signed an agreement with PAEDCO to purchase the theatre and for the next year they worked toward re-opening the Colonial by organizing a board, developing a business plan and doing market research.
In 1998 ACT hired Carnevale Eustis Architects, developed a capital campaign and began work on Phase I of the restoration. On October 1, 1999 the Colonial Theatre re-opened showing art and independent films, children’s programs and classic films.
|ACT refurbished the façade of the Colonial Theatre in a style reminiscent of the 1950’s when The Blob made the theatre famous. With grants from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the Chester County Conference and Visitors Bureau and the Phoenixville Community Health Foundation the marquee was re-lit in December, 2002. ACT experienced a 28% jump in attendance. Phase III fundraising begins.|
|The Special Events Committee organized a series of live events to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the Colonial. The Phoenixville JayCees made the Colonial the center of their annual Dogwood Parade by incorporating the theme Meet Me at the Movies as a nod to the theatre’s long and important history in the community. Wes Shank, caretaker of the original Blob and “The Original Blob” itself were appointed parade marshals. The roof was replaced to insure any future water problems. Restrooms were expanded as ACT anticipated a growing audience with the planned expansion of programming to begin in the fall of 2004. The Take a Seat Campaign was launched in August to help pay for new seats. The Chester County Conference and Visitors Bureau, The William Penn Foundation, The Arcadia Foundation, The Claneil Foundation and Phoenixville Community Health Foundation came on board to support this phase of restoration.95,000 patrons have visited the Colonial Theatre for a variety of programs under ACT’s stewardship. A concert series in collaboration the Point Entertainment begin in September.|
|Phase IV planning and fundraising begins. ACT seeks to renovate the second and third floors above the lobby for office space and a party/meeting room. The renovation of the box office is also completed.|
|ACT embarks on an eight month strategic plan with the support of the William Penn Foundation and the Phoenixville Community Health Foundation. A premier annual report is written reflecting the first five years of the operation of the Colonial under ACT’s stewardship.Construction plans continue. Over $600,000 has been raised for the last two phases of work bringing the total raised for capital improvements close to $2 million from The Phoenixville Community Health Foundation, The William Penn Foundation, The Claneil Foundation, The Chester County Conference and Visitor’s Bureau, The Chester County Department of Community Development and an Anchor Building Loan from the Pennsylvania Department of Economic and Community Development and others. 35,000 people visit the Colonial Theatre in 2005 for film, concerts, children’s programs and community events. ACT’s partnership with Point Entertainment brings Johnny Winter, Tommy Emmanuel, Richie Havens and others to the Colonial during the year.|
|An elevator is added and the renovation of the office space on the second floor is completed. Funding for the renovation of the third floor continues. Based on the strategic plan ACT hires an Assistant Director, upgrades computer systems and the website. A Children’s Summer Series of live programs is launched serving children and families and fostering their appreciation for this gem in their community. Additionally, a collaboration with the Phoenixville Publilc Library to bring “Thrilling Thursdays” to the Colonial each summer brings hundreds of children to the theatre.|
|ACT teams up with the French and Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust (FPCCT) to plan a ffundraiser for the two groups. Philosophically it makes sense that people who enjoy the urban groove of Phoenixville and all its amenities also understand the importance of preserving our open space in order to improve the quality of all our lives throughout the region. Bringin’ Home the Bacons for Conservation and Culture, a concert with the Bacon Brothers netted $37,000 for each organization. ACT’s funds are earmarked for the renovation of our third floor as a community room, allowing us to present additional film screenings, lectures, classes and special events.|
|In reviewing the goals of the strategic plan from 2005, ACT decides to hire Barlow and Associates to evaluate the efficacy of a one screen house. The issues addressed are how do we grow, how do we sustain a donor base and how do we continue to have an impact on the community. The results of the study are clear: unless ACT can expand there is a good chance the organization could stagnate. Two options emerge for ACT: digging below the theatre or purchasing the available building next door could allow ACT to add additional movie screens. ACT decides to investigate the financial implications of expansion.In the meantime, ACT adds a ticketing system that allows customers, for the first time, to purchase tickets with credit cards and online. Additionally, ACT brings Point Entertainment concert ticketing in-house, saving patrons high ticketing fees and allowing ACT to build a larger donor base that tracks patron’s program interest and contribution history.|
|ACT commissions Webb Management to conduct the Expansion Study. The results help ACT determine the kinds of programming that could be successful in the building next door, if purchased by ACT. The board envisions the Colonial becoming a first-run art house with the two new theaters and a renovated main auditorium that would allow ACT to build both their film and live programming. With this decision made, Webb Management moves forward with a Business Plan that would outline how this expansion plan would be financially feasible.In the meantime, ACT invites Firebird Theatre to begin to work with young people at the Colonial, producing a yearly play and live holiday event.|
|On December 10, 2011, ACT purchased the historic bank building at 225 Bridge Street. The decision to make the purchase was made after careful planning and analysis of our present situation and our ability to grow and continue to serve the community. In addition, the real estate market and the plans of “The Phoenix” owners Journal Register made it an opportune time to make such a purchase.Our board of directors and many leaders in our community participated in the Expansion Study and Business Plan led by Webb Management to help us make two important decisions: first, whether the purchase and expansion was viable; and second, how we could best utilize the space for maximum community enjoyment and cultural vibrancy.The next step involved hiring Carnevale-Eustis Architects, who worked with Cosler Theatre Design, Inc., to imagine the best design for the building based on our programming needs. Their design also incorporates the final renovation of the existing Colonial auditorium,The result of that work includes a large lobby towards the front of the 225 Bridge Street building which will accommodate patrons from our live events in the Colonial during intermission. Two additional spaces (one toward the back of the building and one on the lower level in the front of the building) will allow for additional film viewing and smaller live events. All in all, this expansion will allow ACT to bring many more people to Phoenixville and insure that ACT can continue to build a diverse and exciting programming schedule. Special thanks to our visionary donors who made the purchase of 225 Bridge Street possible:The Andersen Family
The Archie W. and Grace Berry Foundation
Century 21 – Norris Valley Forge
Ted and Debby Flint
Stephen H. and Julia B. Kalis
The John Lazarich Foundation
Meacham Family Foundation
Marian and David Moskowitz
Ken and Moira Mumma
Suzanne V. Norris
The Norris Family Charitable Fund
Elizabeth Norris and Tim Buckley
Phoenixville Federal Bank and Trust
Rotary International of Phoenixville
MaryLouise A. Sterge
Kirsten Van VlandrenThe planning necessary to make crucial decisions was supported in part by a grant from The William Penn Foundation and the “Bringin’ Back the Bacons for Conservation and Culture” event in the fall of 2011.A RACP (Redevelopment Assistance Community Program) grant from the State of Pennsylvania is received and will be used to renovate the façade of 225 Bridge.
|A Master Plan for the completion of Colonial Theatre renovations and the adjacent building is completed by Carnevale Eustis Architects. ACT hires Susan Palmer from The North Group to conduct a Campaign Planning Study to determine the organization’s ability to rally the region and raise the funds needed to complete the renovations. A Task Force from the community was gathered to shepherd this study. 35 members of the community were interviewed and the results were quite positive. The Task Force recommended to the Board of Directors that ACT had the capacity to launch a multi-million dollar campaign for Phase I which entails complete renovation of the bank building and restoration of the lobby of the Colonial. Phase II would be the complete restoration of the auditorium of the Colonial and technical upgrades of the stage area.|
|A Campaign Team is assembled and the quiet phase of fundraising for Phase I is launched. ACT hires a Development Associate to support the Executive Director in the fundraising for the project. Phoenixville Community Health Foundation awards ACT $250,000 for Phase I of the Capital Campaign. This brings the fundraising-to-date to over one third of the current goal.|
Check out the Colonial’s Flickr stream for more great photos.