Late 1800s - Early 1900s
The Colonial Theatre was built by one Harry Brownback, a man whose family had played an early role in Chester County, Pennsylvania. His youth was spent among the beautiful rolling hills of Chester County during the late nineteenth century. Harry’s father ran The Seven Stars Inn, a tavern still operational today on Route 23 in Spring City, which his family had owned since 1736. He (father) also served as pastor of the nearby German Reformed Church, also built by his forebearers in 1741. When his mother was widowed, Harrys older brother, Ben, took over managing the family tavern. Not much else is known about Harry’s earlier years, other than that after he married, he and his bride lived for a time at 145 Gay Street in Phoenixville. 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.
Out of work, Harry Brownback found something he hadn’t had before: time on his hands to pursue a dream. In the difficulties that ended his career in industry, Harry saw an opportunity. He 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.” At the time Phoenixville was a thriving industrial town known as the “Gateway to Valley Forge” and had a population of about 2,000.
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. When his theater was completed it shared the still unpaved Bridge Street with businesses like 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 goods stores. Harry, and the Colonial Opera House he built at a total cost of $30,000, had come 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.
A series of four, one-reelers lasting 40 minutes each is shown on Saturday, Dec. 19th: the first movie presentation at the Colonial Theatre.
D. W. Griffith’s controversial two-hour civil war movie The Birth of a Nation plays at the Colonial.
Actress Mary Pickford visits her friend Harry Brownback on her way to the Rajah Theatre in Reading, PA.
Another of Brownback’s friends, Thurston, the world-famous magician, performs at the Colonial.
The Great Harry Houdini performs at the Colonial. Before an audience of 300 he frees himself from a burglar-proof safe.
The Colonial assembles its own orchestra led by Fred Neiman, Phoenixville’s local mortician, as well as an excellent violinist.
A Wurlitzer organ is purchased and installed, and twenty minute organ recitals are presented just before the Fox Movietone News.
Silent features continue to be accompanied by piano.
Phoenixville now has three downtown theatres. Sample fare includes Theda Bara in The Forbidden Path at the Colonial; Kitty Gordon in Divine Sacrifice at the New-Phoenix (Main and Hall Streets); and William S. Hart in Dusty Trails at the Savoy (North Main Street).
The Colonial presents its last stage show, Very Good Eddie, which began a successful run on Broadway in 1915.
The first talkie, The Jazz Singer, is shown at the Colonial.
The Phoenixville Kiwanis Club stages The Mikado, which runs for two nights and stars George Andrews, Kiwanis President.
The Torch Passes
The Colonial went on to serve Phoenixville through both World Wars, the Great Depression, and the tumultuous 1960’s. A diverse assemblage of dedicated owners loved it and worked, sometimes against tremendous odds, to keep it alive. But they each shared Brownback’s vision of bringing the best programs to Phoenixville at affordable admissions prices.
With the addition of sound to film in the 1920’s, the subsequent three decades saw the flowering of cinema and the Colonial enjoyed it’s movie hey-day, though it never abandoned 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. Silverman 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 a small bookstore in a section of the Colonial. In 1957 Good News Productions produced The Blob starring a young Stephen (not yet Steve) McQueen. Scenes from the movie were filmed at the Colonial and other spots in and around Phoenixville. The marquee proudly announces that the theatre is ‘healthfully air conditioned’. Another decade passes with relative success. Silverman’s group was profit-oriented, but they also cared about keeping the theater available for local talent. Popular Hollywood films were standard Colonial fare and occasional local benefit shows rounded out the offering.
Despite the renovations undertaken by Silverman’s group, the Colonial Theatre had difficulty competing with the new crop of large chain theatres. The industry began spreading into the suburbs.
In 1963 another Phoenixville theatre, the Rialto, was torn down to make way for a new YMCA at Main and Church Streets. It was now clear that older movie houses like the Colonial were in trouble. In 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. He struggled to keep the theatre going and by 1975, the Colonial’s future rested on the shoulders of Eric Knudsen. Straub and Knudsen made a deal that would enable Knudsen to take over management of the theatre with a lease-for-purchase agreement.
Knudsen, Breneman, and Larosa
In his early twenties, Knudsen, brought life back to the Colonial, fueled by a passion born of memories of visits to Radio City with his father. The stage came alive with concerts, an annual magic show, and a Halloween show. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing was performed by the National Players from Washington, D.C. and a live Wild West Show was presented by 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 devoted all of his free time into the painstaking restoration of much of the Colonial Theatre, living in an apartment behind the theatre’s mezzanine. He repaired its 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, which he shared with 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.
By 1978 Knudsen was beginning to realize that despite his passion for the Colonial 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 he had entered into with Straub three years prior and Breneman agreed to buy the Colonial.
Jim Breneman was a student at Drexel University when in 1966 he attended his first organ recital on campus. The majestic chords of a classical organ enthralled him. “It was the greatest thing since indoor plumbing,” he reminisced. 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. In 1967 Breneman signed a contract to buy a long-dormant, 38 year-old Kimball organ in bad disrepair from the owners of the State Theatre at 52nd and Chestnut Streets in West Philadelphia. The organ was a bargain at just $1,510. Undaunted by his lack of knowledge or skill at organ repair, Jim and 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 impacted the Brookline, badly damaging the organ. The floor had been previously water damaged by a storm in 1928 and was never allowed to completely dry before being repaired. When the 1973 storm flooded the theater again, the Kimball, sitting on what was an already weakened floor, fell through it, crashing down into the theater’s basement. Sam La Rosa helped Breneman move his dearly loved and badly broken organ to a garage. 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.
In 1985, illness forced Breneman to curtail his hours and LaRosa began to shoulder 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.
Association for The Colonial Theatre
On December 8, 1996 the Phoenixville Area Economic Development Corporation (PAEDCO), purchased the Colonial Theatre under the direction of Barbara Cohen. Their intent was to restore 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 nonprofit 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 to restore the Colonial Theatre for occupancy and functionality.
On October 1, 1999 the Colonial Theatre re-opened with a screening of the German film, Run Lola Run. It would devote its stage and screen to arthouse and independent films, children’s programming, and classic films offered on its original 35mm projection system.
1996 - 2018
The Colonial Expands
Nearly a decade after ACT was formed to assume ownership and operate the Colonial as a nonprofit, attention could turn toward securing the theater’s future success. The Colonial needed to persist in delivering its mission, but it would have difficulty doing so if it remained a single-screen venue. Revenues and donations appeared to plateau in 2008, prompting the Board to seek advice from theater consultants who asserted that unless additional theaters and patron amenities were added through a capital (building) expansion, additional revenues could not materialize.
The discovery prompted a formal exploration of a major capital expansion. The three-story Colonial sits atop a concrete slab, making any expansion below the main auditorium an impossibility. (Many contemporaries have dug beneath their theaters for extra space in the past decade.) Twinning the single auditorium was out of the question. In 2010, the Colonial’s immediate neighbor, The Phoenix newspaper, vacated its capacious building, providing a fortuitous solution to the dilemma of where expansion could possibly occur. The 1925 ‘National Bank of Phoenixville’ building has a Greek revival façade that sharply contrasts with the Colonial’s own, but it’s size, configuration, and shared internal wall made it a perfect candidate for an adaptive reuse. In under a year, ACT’s Board of Directors raised and contributed $973,000 to purchase the property, which was listed at just $1m but purchased at a significantly reduced $723,000. Of this total, $250,000 was secured for façade restoration from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Redevelopment Capital Assistance (RCAP) program.
As it considered purchasing the Bank, ACT commissioned an independent consultant for an expansion demand study. This would evaluate whether facilities growth would, indeed, increase profitability over the long term. It would also formally evaluate the market and determine how best to utilize additional programming space.
With the raw space secured and study in hand, local architects Carnevale Eustis Architects were hired to develop designs for the adaptive reuse of the Bank building (expansion) and restoration of the original Colonial Theatre auditorium and lobby. Additional input from renowned theater designer Charles Cosler Theatre Design was sought. The staggering total cost of both activities and impact on daily operations/revenues led the Board to pursue only the expansion of the theatre into the Bank Building. The restoration would have to wait.
The expansion plan envisioned two buildings connected at cut-throughs in the Colonial’s existing lobby, balcony level, and backstage. The lobby would open into the bank’s own spacious, light-filled one where an original popcorn glass ceiling would be restored and backlit. The larger lobby could finally accommodate sold-out concerts and allow simultaneous films and live arts events to occur. Sections of marble wainscoting could be restored and moved. Ornamental plaster detail would be preserved and restored for a dramatic ceiling. Interior and exterior metal windows could also be retained, while new metal railings would be locally fabricated to approximate the original ones. A 30’ concession and bar would greet patrons and enhance revenue. A catering kitchen could facilitate more private rentals and events. Two theatres would be built to create a Colonial
Theatre with not one, but three venues for film and live. The Bank’s secondary vault could be transformed into a private dressing room with invisible access to the old auditorium, allowing performers to comfortably prepare to take the stage. Other elements created through the Bank on the Arts Building Expansion Project would include six accessible restrooms; a three-stop elevator; catering kitchen; and a rental suite and rooftop event space with sweeping views of Phoenixville. Finally, to accommodate the anticipated program and audience growth and new ticketing infrastructure, the box office would be reconfigured. A large counter would provide space for two ticketing terminals and multiple staff. The inner lobby would expand by six feet to include lighted poster cases and a bank of tired, hollow-core doors separating the box office area from the 1903 lobby would be replaced with glass ones. Best of all, while construction occurred, ACT could continue normal operations.
With the Master Plan conceived, a fundraising consultant with national experience was hired in 2012 to conduct a Campaign Planning Study. A Task Force consisting of 35 community leaders and philanthropists was interviewed anonymously and individually to assess their willingness to support a building expansion at the Colonial Theatre. Their positive responses engendered the creation of a Campaign Team and quiet fundraising began in 2013. The Colonial broke ground via a public event attended by donors, local legislators, and Borough officials on April 2016 after hitting the ~$5M fundraising mark and securing a $5M loan from Malvern Federal Bank. Construction was undertaken by Lancaster-based Caldwell, Heckles & Egan Inc. over a 13-month period beginning in 2016 and ending in March 2017.
The expanded, three-screen Colonial Theatre has garnered multiple preservation awards and maintains a significant, lasting impact on programming and the surrounding community.
In 2018, the ‘Bank on the Arts’ expansion project garnered a 2018 Grand Jury award from the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia and a Public Impact Award from Preservation PA’s Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Awards. In its first full-year of operation, revenues and attendance doubled. The programmatic impact of adding two theatres was immediate. Before the expansion, patrons enjoyed ~400 film screenings and concerts. New feature releases were extremely limited and film runs typically lasted for weeks. Over 3,200 film screenings, live arts events, and special events are now offered because of the building expansion; there is a wider variety of new film content available; and multiple screening times daily. Not only has the quantity of programming attracted a greater number of patrons, the expansion project has allowed the Colonial to offer a wider variety of film and live content than ever before, thereby meeting the needs of more community members.
2018 - present
A New Era
In 2018, the nonprofit Association for the Colonial Theatre welcomed its second Executive Director, Ken L. Metzner, and celebrated the significant achievements of outgoing founding Executive Director, Mary Foote. It reasserted the role of arts and culture in fostering a vibrant, connected community through re-visioning of its mission, vision, and values. And, it began exploration of new programs that would deepen audience engagement and mutually benefit the Colonial and surrounding, mission-driven nonprofits and social services organizations.
From March 2020 through early July 2020, the Colonial went completely dark due to COVID-19. It reopened for reduced audiences on July 3, 2020 and offered a limited in-person schedule with masking, social distancing, and special cleaning procedures. From July 2020 to mid-December, the Colonial continued to operate with varying capacity restrictions. In mid-December 2020, entertainment venues were again completely closed due to a pandemic surge. The Colonial reopened on January 15, 2021 with capacity restrictions, which persisted until late May 2021. Around that time, theaters were given the all-clear to resume 100% seating capacity. Live concerts returned to the 119-year old stage in August 2021.
Jennifer L. Carlson took the helm as Executive Director on April 12, 2022. The Colonial Theatre continues to rebound from the pandemic, and is currently presenting a full calendar of film and live entertainment. The staff and board are working on a 2024 – 2026 Strategic Plan, tackling some deferred maintenance of the 1903 Theatre, and already planning the 25th annual Blobfest, which will take place in July 2024.