The Colonial Theater was built in 1923 at the northwest corner of 9th and Cumberland streets. A century later, its elegance has not been equaled locally. 

It was Lebanon’s finest and most elaborately furnished theater, and included the first commercial air conditioning system in the city.

The Colonial Theater thrived when live theater shows such as vaudeville, barbershop quartets, and big band performances were all the rage. It also witnessed the transition from silent films to talkies. The interior was finished in the Adam style (or Adamesque), an 18th-century neoclassical decorative style. The exterior included bricks of various tones of beige, and a large eye-catching corner marquee sign.

The Colonial Theater, circa 1930s, standing stately and elegant at the northwest corner of Ninth and Cumberland streets in Lebanon. (Author’s collection)

The Colonial Theater was designed and erected under the supervision of Ritcher & Eiler, registered architects of 147 N. 5th Street, Reading. This firm was known for designing churches, hospitals, educational, and commercial buildings. They were forced out of business in the 1930s due to the hardships of the Great Depression.

The design of the Colonial Theater is identified as commercial Prairie-style architecture (also known as Prairie School). America’s greatest architect, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), was the pioneer of the Prairie School movement of architecture. Wright was inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement (an international trend in the decorative and fine arts), which flourished in the U.S. from around 1880 to the early 1920s. The Prairie School style incorporated the modern ideas that form follows function, and is credited as the beginning of modern architecture.

Architects of the Ritcher & Eiler firm incorporated many of the Prairie School-style hallmark features into the Colonial Theater including a flat roof, grouped windows, horizontal lines, solid construction techniques, brickwork, hand craftsmanship, simplicity, and function. Commercial features of the exterior of the building included two storefront areas with large commercial glass windows (on the north 9th Street side), and a centrally located entrance vestibule with a stand-alone ticket booth. The basement originally included three large and two small stores.

The interior was an impressive and gorgeous work of art that included fancy wood moldings, and sculptured walls with hand-painted plaster panels and cornice. The ceiling in the auditorium was adorned with ornamental hand-painted plaster. Beautiful draperies were arranged in long folds. Lighting fixtures included large semi-indirect lighting bowls hung from the main ceiling, and several bracket wall lights hung throughout the building. These lighting fixtures provided a soft glowing color throughout the auditorium.

Colonial Theater interior, from the stage looking to the northeast, circa 1972. (Lebanon County Historical Society)
Colonial Theater interior, northeast stage and front seating section, circa 1972. (Lebanon County Historical Society)

On Oct. 1, 1923, the Colonial Theater opened with extensive fanfare. A page one article in the Lebanon Daily News stated, “Immense [community interest was apparent as many people] inspected the magnificent structure – Flowers galore blended beautifully with the gorgeous trimmings and trappings of the interior of the building – Representatives of some of the most prominent motion picture agencies in the state were present.” Luther G. Harpel, Lebanon’s pioneering photographer, was present for the occasion and took pictures of various groups of opening day attendees.

“Welcome to Amusement Lovers – Official Opening of the Colonial Theater,” reads an ad on page eight of the Lebanon Daily News’ Oct. 1, 1923, edition.

In the early years of the Colonial Theater silent films were shown accompanied by live music played on an organ located in the “pit” in the front of the theater. In 1927, The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson was the first full-length talking picture shown there.

Interior of Colonial Theater. Top: Center stage view. Bottom: Northeast balcony section looking onto the stage view. The pit is visible in both pictures, which were taken circa 1972. (Lebanon County Historical Society)

During the 1920s and ’30s, the Colonial Ballroom on the theater’s second floor included a bandstand where big bands performed live for the enjoyment of many patrons who danced on the ballroom’s wood floor.

Many notable and interesting films were shown in the Colonial Theater over the years including Gone with the Wind, Juarez, Airport, The Devil’s Triangle, The Animal World, The Groove Tube, The Godfather, Twilight for the Gods, Love Story, and The World’s Greatest Athlete.

‘Now showing’ advertisements for the Colonial Theater in the Lebanon Daily News. From top-left clockwise: UFO Target Earth and The Devil’s Triangle (Oct. 17, 1974); The Animal World (June 27, 1956); Twilight for the Gods (Aug. 15, 1958).

In the early 1970s, shopping trends started moving away from the downtown area to the malls in the suburbs. Moviegoers followed and business at the Colonial Theater, as well as the Academy and State theaters (the two other downtown movie houses in Lebanon at the time), fell dramatically. The Colonial Theater started showing second runs of well-known films, as well as adult films, and hosting other events such as rock concerts in an attempt to stay in business.

The Colonial Theater’s marquee advertising a second-run of the acclaimed 1939 film Juarez starring Bette Davis, circa 1970s. (Lebanon County Historical Society)

In 1977, the Colonial Theater was closed and put up for sale as the owners claimed its operation expenses were too high. In 1978, the theater opened under new ownership and showed films, hosted live entertainment that was geared to a family audience, and rented the facility to clubs and other organizations for their specific programs.

In 1980, the theater started closing for the winter as the owners could not afford heating oil. Vandalism and loitering around the shuttered theater became a big problem as costly damage occurred to many areas of the building that the owners could not afford to repair.

In 1982, the Colonial Theater was still managing to stay in business by rejuvenating live performances such as gong shows, barbershop quartet performances, and band concerts. However, these entertainment venues did not make enough money to keep the Colonial Theater operating and it closed again. It was used as a traditional theater for the last time in 1982.

In 1983, the Colonial Theater building was used as a campaign headquarters for incumbent Lebanon Mayor Donald Griffith’s re-election bid. Other uses of the building around this time included accounting offices and the Lebanon Valley Travel Bureau’s business office.

It was sometime in the early 1980s that the roof started to leak. Over the next several years the condition of the roof worsened as needed repairs were not performed. This led to extensive water damage throughout the building and was the catalyst of major destruction to the roof and the ruination of the interior of the building.

By 1991, the building had deteriorated into a dreadful state of disrepair, and talk of it being demolished was circulating around the community. The Friends of the Colonial, a community action group dedicated to preserving the landmark, was formed. This group had plans on raising enough money ($3 to $5 million) to turn the Colonial Theater into a cultural arts center.

“The gold is gone, the silver is tarnished and the scent of flowers has been replaced by the stench of rotting wood and plaster,” Greg Bracale, the group’s chairman, said. “Our once great movie palace is about to die.” The group gathered hundreds of signatures from supporters, asked for donations, and applied for grants.

A preliminary inspection of the building by Nissley Johnston Architects of Mount Gretna determined that the leaking roof caused extensive damage to the ceiling and interior, but the walls and main supports were in excellent condition. This report offered some hope that the Colonial Theater could possibly be repaired and restored to its former glory.

In 1993, the Lebanon City Council agreed to pay $16,900 for a feasibility study and market analysis to determine if the Colonial Theater could be repurposed into community arts center. The consulting firm of Daniel L. Pierotti and Co., of Madison, Wisconsin, was hired to perform the work.

In October 1993, Daniel Pierotti’s firm said that the plan to renovate the Colonial Theater could work, and “irreplaceable architecture in the area must be saved and highlighted as part of an overall city renaissance.” However, the renovation project would cost about $6 million and take several years to complete. Additionally, Pierotti suggested that the city offices be moved onto Cumberland Street to show support for downtown revitalization. (This would come to fruition eventually, but not for almost three decades.)

Artist’s conception of what a renovated Colonial Theater could have appeared within the cityscape of downtown Lebanon. (Lebanon Daily News edition, Nov. 18, 1993)

Preservation Pennsylvania, a nonprofit organization with a mission to assist Pennsylvania communities to protect and utilize the historic resources they want to preserve for the future, reported that the Colonial Theater was listed, in 1993, on the commonwealth’s most endangered historic properties.

In 1994, bricks and roof debris from the Colonial Theater began falling onto the street as efforts to raise money to save the building were slow to materialize. As the building continued to deteriorate the cost to restore it kept growing.

Colonial Theater in ruins circa 1996, from top-left clockwise: View of seats and private box; view of concession stand area; view of stage and collapsed roof; and view of two rusted movie projectors. (Photos provided by Hillary Hess)

In January 1996, the building was sold for $49 to Thomas Conti of Easton at a judicial tax sale. After Conti made no attempts to repair the building the City of Lebanon fined him for failure to meet building codes. The cost to replace the roof alone was estimated to be $500,000. Conti allowed salvage crews to remove various artifacts, some having monetary worth and others having nostalgic value, from the building, including ornate lighting fixtures, original seats, woodwork, and brass exit signs.

Bracale of the Friends of the Colonial said nothing of value was left inside the building after the salvage crews were finished carting items away. (It is notable to mention that many of the valuable artifacts were removed from the building prior to Conti’s ownership.)

In November 1996, the Friends of the Colonial announced that their more than four-year attempt to save the Colonial Theater ended as they were not able to gather the required $6 million for its renovation. The group’s board awarded five local organizations equal shares of the remaining funds that were collected in their attempt to save the theater.

During 1997 and 1998, attempts to sell the building to various developers and investors failed. The site of the Colonial Theater was promoted as having lucrative commercial potential, but the lack of nearby bustling business activity and diminutive area foot traffic prevented opportunities to sell the building.

In 1999, the City of Lebanon took possession of the building by agreeing to waive all fines and liens they had placed against the building’s owner. On Aug. 31, 1999, the Pennsylvania Historic Preservation officer agreed with the City of Lebanon to request federal funds to demolish the Colonial Theater.

By 2000, the building was far beyond economical repair, a public hazard, and deemed an eyesore. The City of Lebanon had no other choice but to order the demolition of the structure.

The Colonial Theater building lost its battle against the ravages of time and the elements as Empire Services of Reading was paid $207,000 from the city’s federal Community Development Block Grant funds to demolish the building and haul away the debris. By August 2000, the building was completely gone, creating a large void in downtown Lebanon’s cityscape.

The Colonial Theater’s last sad show. (Lebanon Daily News edition, May 18, 2000)

The large neon-lamped letters that were attached to the top of the marquee that spelled C-O-L-O-N-I-A-L were donated to the Lebanon County Historical Society. The two smaller neon-lamped letters that were attached to the sides of the marquee were donated as well; one to the Lebanon County Historical Society and the other to the Pennsylvania state historical museum. Salvaged bricks were given away to the community as souvenirs.

Today, there is no marker or any evidence on the northwest corner of 9th and Cumberland streets to indicate that a once-elegant theater called the Colonial had stood there. A public parking lot now takes up the space where the majestic theater stood for 77 years.

The Colonial Theater is by no means forgotten and will remain part of Lebanon’s folklore for many years to come. However, it is on the undesirable list of lost historic Lebanon landmarks that include the Eagle/Weimer Hotel, George Dawson Coleman Mansion, Gingrich Memorial Swimming Pool, Key Drive-In, Lebanon County Courthouse, St. Mary’s Catholic Church, and the Weaver Mansion.

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Randy Jaye is an historian and Lebanon, PA native. He has recently researched and nominated four properties that have been successfully added onto the National Register of Historic Places. He is the author of three recent history books, and writes articles for historical journals, local newspapers, magazines,...

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