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FROM THE EDITOR’S DESK: Some new hope for old theaters


Mineral Daily News-Tribune

KEYSER, W.Va. — It was 1975 and everyone wanted to see “Jaws.“
With the tagline “You’ll never go in the water again,” the Steven Spielberg blockbuster was a cinematic phenomenon like few others at that time. It promised to serve up thrills and put cold chills down the spine of everyone planning to vacation at the beach that year.
I don’t remember if I walked from my West End home or was lucky enough to catch a ride, but either way I do very clearly remember my amazement at the line of eager theater-goers that stretched from the box office at the Keyser Theater to the corner of Main and Piedmont streets and back up Piedmont Street almost as far as the post office.
I enjoyed “Jaws.” It even had one particular scene that made me jump – something not easily accomplished for this life-long fan of good scary stories.
There were a lot of movies I enjoyed at the Keyser Theater over the years, and they weren’t all scary. When I was much younger, my mom, who was very definitely not a fan of scary movies, took me there to see a lot of movies – all assuredly more family-friendly than “Jaws.” There was “Bambi.” And “That Darn Cat.” And even “Escape From the Planet of the Apes,” which, believe it or not, was her idea.
No matter what the movie, however, the experience of sitting in that darkened cavernous room with the art deco orange and blue decorations on the ceiling helped instill in me a deep love of the experience of watching a movie in a theater.
At one time, these theaters could be found in the business sections of just about every town and city in America. Locally, there was the Majestic on Ashfield Street in Piedmont, the Star Theater on Main Street in Westernport, and the Liberty Theater, also in Keyser. I don’t remember too much about the Liberty, except it was located on Piedmont Street and my dad took me there one time to see “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.”
I remember seeing a silly werewolf movie called “The Howling” in the Fairmont Theater when I was attending college out there, and many years later taking my son to see “The Pokemon Movie” at the Palace in Frostburg.
Of course, predating all these theaters was the Music Hall, also on Main Street in Keyser, which showed “moving pictures” back in the ’20s.
All of those theaters except the Palace and the Music Hall are gone now; either victims of fire, old age or progress. The Palace still sits on Main Street in Frostburg, and despite some setbacks with a collapsing wall, has managed to struggle along to occasionally offer entertainment to the community.
And the Music Hall, purchased a few years ago by a young theater-lover, will hopefully one day be restored.
Tragically, most of the independently-owned theaters fell victim in the ’80s and ’90s to the rise of the big box multi-plex theaters that could be found in just about every mall in America.
But let me just say right here and now that there is a big difference between the old theaters of yesteryear, which had a character of their own, and the big generic concrete box multi-plexes.
And, as they say, the only constant is change. Today, the multi-plexes are now losing the battle of progress to online streaming and subscription services like Netflix and Hulu. Movie fans are now staying home to get their cinematic fix, and are able to see the latest movies a lot cheaper, but they are losing out on the theatrical experience – the charm and enchantment of the darkened theater.
But there is some encouragement for those of us who loved the old theaters! Thanks to some like-minded people out there who can’t bear the thought of those beautiful old buildings disappearing altogether, some of the old movie houses are being revived or reinvented.
Two weeks ago, for example, I had the pleasure of visiting the Embassy Theatre in downtown Cumberland for the first time. I knew the old theater had been revived thanks to actor Mark Baker and a board of directors that includes members from Mineral County, but I had never been inside the old building until I was invited to attend the dress rehearsal for “Cabaret.“
Walking into the lobby of the Embassy is like a step back in time with the vintage lounge furniture and the old snack bar. And the theater itself, although smaller than I expected, provides an wonderfully intimate atmosphere that just can’t be touched by the larger theaters.
The Embassy hosts a wide variety of programs, from musicals like “Cabaret” to concerts, stand-up comedy and even “open mic” nights.
In a world where downtowns have lost business upon business, the Embassy is a welcome addition to Cumberland’s downtown mall – keeping things active and alive for both the hometown folks and the tourists.
It is my hope that the future will bring similar success to the old Keyser Theater, currently being reinvented into the Indie on Main Street Art House. You will see my story on new owner Stephen Settimi and his plans for the theater on today’s front page.
I truly enjoyed getting a chance to see inside the building earlier this week, to see the new aspects of the old building beginning to take shape, and also to see the remnants of the old theater as I remembered it.
I was able to tell Mr. Settimi where the snack bar was, and how the theater seemed so large and cavernous to a young star-struck movie goer.
And while his plans call for a little different use for some of the building, the center will still house a theater – about the size of the theater at the Embassy – and yes, the blue and orange art deco decorations on the ceiling are still there and will remain.
He even plans to try to decorate the sides of the theater in a manner similar to the original decor.
You can tell Mr. Settimi has a passion about old theaters, and this theater in particular. And passion is what it has taken to revive theaters like the Embassy and what it will take to get the Indie on her feet.
I am excited about this project, and hope to spend many times there enjoying musical programs, plays and movies.
The night before the Indie holds its grand opening in June, Mr. Settimi plans to hold a “pre-party” and show “In Name Only,” the original black and white movie that opened the Keyser Theater in 1939.
Who knows … maybe someday he will even show “jaws.”

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