F. M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts - A Rich and Colorful History
In August 18, 1938, the Comerford Movie Theater opened its doors to the public, showing the movie, Alexander's Ragtime Band, starring, Tyrone Power, Don Ameche, and Alice Faye. That was the beginning of a rich and colorful history for the building that is now called the F. M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts. In 1937 the Comerford movie chain chose this site on Public Square on which to erect a movie house as a monument to founder Michael E. Comerford. It was the flagship gem of the M. E. Comerford 45-theater chain located in Northeastern Pennsylvania and New York. The grandest of movie houses was planned, replacing a bus terminal, a printing company, a stonecutter and a drug store.
Theater Was An Art Deco Dream
The result was an advanced art deco dream ... a lavish interior with five lobbies, oval rose-colored mirrors, tall fluted columns, doors and walls in copper tints with shades of metallic blue. All of this was topped off by the "Giant Lavaliere," a glorious chandelier which still graces the lobby of the Kirby Center today, with a similar version located in the Empire State Building. Holding nearly 2,000 patrons, the theater had the largest capacity in the area and was technologically advance for its time making hearing aid equipped seats, air conditioning, and a nursery with a matron. Theater Renamed the Paramount
The 1940s brought about a time of change for the theater. In 1949, due to an anti-trust lawsuit, ownership of the Comerford Theater was transferred to the Penn Paramount Company and the building was renamed the Paramount Theater. It continued to operate as one of Northeastern Pennsylvania's majestic, single screen movie palaces for another twenty-seven years.
A Hurricane and Urban Redevelopment Take Their Toll
Not even the muddy, 14-foot deep flood waters of Hurricane Agnes in the Summer of 1972 could keep the theater closed. But, the natural disaster that befell the entire Wyoming Valley took its toll. A new multiplex at a newly opened mall became the focal point of film-goers as Wilkes-Barre residents dug out from the tons of mud and flood debris. Many of the downtown businesses never recovered and were later razed as part of a massive urban redevelopment plan. Two other downtown screens were demolished during the mid and late 1970's, but the Paramount hung on.
Finally, the economics of operating a large, single screen building, coupled with changed shopping patterns and the free parking associated with the mall cineplex, forced the Paramount to close its doors in late 1977 and it transferred to a new owner. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, when it was no longer a movie house, the theater was used as a venue for touring concerts and closed-circuit television boxing matches -- hollow echoes of the glory that had once been.
In effort to re-model the building to accommodate various small business operations, and without consideration to the historical value of the structure, the luxurious box office lobby was gutted, large fluted lighting standards were sold or demolished, the brass and bronze door frames were cut, and curved glass display cases along with the brass and marble exterior ticket booth were removed. With unsuccessful business ventures and an overall deteriorating building - the next step was demolition.
A New Theater is Born
Fortunately, a group of local residents banded together under the acronym S.T.O.P. (Save The Old Paramount.) They were successful in having the building added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, but even so, it was basically abandoned. . . until 1985. Enter Albert Boscov. The owner of one of the nation's largest, privately owned department store chains, Boscov's, was no stranger to Wilkes-Barre. A few years earlier he had purchased one of the last remaining downtown department stores (Fowler, Dick and Walker - The Boston Store.) This was his first multi-storied store and the people of Wilkes-Barre showed that a downtown store was still a good idea. So much so that the store was the leading dollar producer of Boscov's entire chain for many years.
Mr. Boscov wanted a way to say "Thank You" to the people of Wilkes-Barre. And the abandoned Paramount was just the right way. In 1985, Boscov, along with August L. Simms, and with the invaluable assistance of Fred M. Kirby II and the Kirby Foundation, a team was assembled including local business and civic leaders, to put together a drive to raise the necessary $3.3 million for the acquisition and restoration of the theater.
Everyone responded. From gifts of grade school students, to wage give backs by labor unions to the major naming gift given by Fred M. Kirby II - everyone pulled together. And in remarkably short order, too. Announced as the Paramount Civic Center on December 21, 1985, the project was launched, designed, and completed in just under nine months. It was renamed the F. M. Kirby Center in honor of Fred M. Kirby I, the co-founder of the Woolworth's chain and a native of the Wilkes-Barre area. Doors to the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts opened on Friday, September 19, 1986, to a gala performance of the American Ballet Theatre's premiere of its "Celebration Tour", featuring prima ballerina Cynthia Gregory and the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic. Also making the evening memorable was a performance by the Wilkes-Barre Ballet Theatre to Ravel's "Bolero", choreographed by Mary L. Hepner, director of the Wilkes-Barre Ballet Theatre. The opening night audience enjoyed a richly restored interior styled in jewel tones of maroon, rose, and gold along with a stunning Art Deco proscenium frame and friezes.
2006 - Celebrating Twenty Years in the Community
Since opening its doors 20 years ago, the F. M. Kirby Center's cumulative audience has been more than 2.5 million people. These audiences have witnessed a broad spectrum of attractions, ranging from grand opera to a cattle auction, from Broadway musicals to 18th Century dramas, from musicians to comedians (simultaneously when Victor Borge performed here), from ballet to acrobats, from magicians to ice skaters, plus the Young People's Theater which annually attracts as many as 10,000 pre-kindergarten though grade 12 students.
Beyond entertainment, the Kirby Center has hosted countless meetings, major political figures, religious ceremonies, graduations and numerous parties and weddings.
Celebrating 20 years of bringing the arts and entertainment to the Wyoming Valley, the Board of Directors of the Kirby Center launched a $750,000 anniversary fundraising campaign in 2005-2006, titled, "Take Your Seats, Please". These funds, raised from the public and private sectors, were earmarked to refurbish sections of the theater's interior as well as improve technical capabilities. Donations to the "Take Your Seats, Please" campaign entitled the donor to an engraved brass plaque, honoring an individual(s) or business, to be placed on the arm of a seat in designated locations in the orchestra, mezzanine or balcony.
This Art-Deco jewel, now offers newly refurbished interiors as it enters its third decade with a restatement of its heritage. In place since the Kirby's opening in 1986, the carpeting had surpassed its useful life. The re-creation of the 1938 carpeting design was accomplished from original photographs and printed descriptions of the interior. Research was also conducted to determine the style and color palate of the original wall coverings in the lobby areas; these walls are now covered in a golden splendor of hand painted wallpaper, while the ceilings, also golden, were magnificently painted utilizing a decorative arts technique reminiscent of the 1938 Art Deco style. Also undergoing refurbishment were the seats, which now boast of new cushions covered with the luxury of red velvet, an important element in keeping with the grand styling of this theater. Additionally, the seating system was reconfigured to serve patrons with unique needs. Ten former spaces for wheel-chair-bound patrons were increased to nineteen which also allows access to more seating opportunities in various sections of the orchestra level. The new seating plan maintains the spacious leg room between the rows, and has kept the Kirby Center's excellent sight lines intact. Though, not so glamorous, but a definite necessity, trenching for show-related electrical cables was completed in the auditorium. The covered trenches now temporarily hide unsightly cables under the carpeting, enabling safe footing for audience members.
After four months of refurbishment, the gloriously restyled F. M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts held an open house for its public on September 29, 2006 with a screening of "Alexander's Ragtime Band", the same film that opened the Comerford Movie Theater, the jewel of the M. E. Comerford 45-theater chain, on Thursday, August 18, 1938, sixty-eight years ago. Hundreds of attendees enjoyed back stage tours and musical entertainment reminiscent of the 1930s. It is through the committed support of the community that this magnificent building still exists and is able to continue its legacy as the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts to present the best of the performing arts and entertainment in northeast Pennsylvania.
What is Art Deco Styling? The art deco nature of the Kirby Center reflects an era that was an amalgam of styles - diverse and conflicting influences. Some trace its roots to Paris and the 1925 "Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes," from which the term "art deco" originates.
It was an emotional style in Paris ... exuberant, colorful and playful. When it eventually was adopted by other European countries and later the United States, it was given a more intellectual interpretation based on theories of functionalism and economy, often referred to as "Modernism."
Art Deco was unlike its stylistic predecessors because it was clean and pure. The lines, if they curved, were gradual and sweeping; straight lines were straight as a ruler. It used aspects of machine design as inspiration, and accelerated the adoption of new materials like plastic, bakelite and chrome.
According to writer Mike Darton, "The mixing of all these influences made Art Deco the style it is. In the hands of a genius, the objects transcended their sources. In the hands of incompetent designers, or plagiarists, they might become drab or garish, but they were, nevertheless, truly Art Deco." Art Deco survives today as the last truly sumptuous style ... and we at the F.M. Kirby Center revel in its fertility and exuberance.