February 17, 1882-October 3, 1946
Thomas Alexander (Alexopoulos), one of Pennylvania’s motion picture theatre pioneers, entered the film exhibition business in 1906 along with his brother in-law, Louis Marinos.
Alexander was born in Mycenae (Mikines) Greece. The date of his birthday is confirmed as February 17. However, there is a question as to the year of his birth. It is widely accepted as 1882. However, his grave marker indicated he was born in 1883. The reason for this is his birth certificate was torn in the corner where the last digit of the year was printed revealing only the top portion of the number – a curved digit which was clearly either a two or three, though no one could confirm for sure. Thomas himself believed he was born in 1882. For our purposes, we will refer to his “unofficial” birth year as 1882. But again, without a proof positive record, the controversy lives on today.
We do know that he immigrated to the United States in 1898 and arrived at Ellis Island at age 16. He arrived as Athanios P. Alexopoulos. Like many immigrants from Central and Southern Europe in those days, his name was Anglicized to the more easily acceptable (and pronounceable), Thomas Alexander. His older brother Andrew had arrived two years earlier and told his brother the streets of America were literally paved with gold. Thomas’ first work was on the docks of New York selling donuts on a long pole primarily to immigrant ship workers from Poland. He got to know them pretty well. One day, a not particularly forward thinking police officer, who had deemed him as “swarthy” and “undesirable,” wrestled his wares from him tossing them in the river and pushing young Thomas into the chilly waters as well leaving him to fend for himself.
The dock workers fished him out saving him from possibly drowning as the bone chilling waters took their toll almost immediately. He told his children on many occasion that he was forever indebted to those men and always had “an extra soft spot in his heart” for people from Poland.
It quickly became apparent that selling donuts on a stick wasn’t exactly living the American dream and the gold paved streets his brother spoke of were nowhere in sight. That’s when Andrew convinced Thomas to join him on a journey west to get in on the Alaskan (Klondike) Gold Rush which had been going on for several months at that time.
The two brothers set out for Alaska but only reached Chicago before running out of money.
They were able to get temporary work in a restaurant to raise enough money to continue. But Thomas informed Andrew that he wasn’t as passionate about the Gold Rush dreams after hearing story after story of failed conquests, violence and impoverished conditions. He elected to return to the east coast, this time to Philadelphia. Andrew decided to press on, but only made it as far as Seattle, where he would live for nearly fifty years.
Thomas got work in a cigar factory but soon learned the craft of candy making and felt it was a more respectable and lucrative business.
He established himself as a candy maker and was then offered a job as a “master” candy maker and chocolatier in Luzerne, Pennsylvania. He arrived there around 1904. He soon met the man who would eventually become his brother-in-law and longtime business partner, Louis Marinos. Marinos also worked in the candy store. Around this time, Marinos brought his younger sister Zoe to the United States from Goranos (Sparta) Greece. It wasn’t long before she was married to Thomas.
Sometime in the latter half of 1906, Thomas had come across a magazine ad for a 16mm movie projector. He discussed the possibility of buying one as a way of entertaining their friends and family members. Marinos chipped in with his half, and the two friends began showing ten to twenty minute movies on the back wall of the candy store after hours to relatives and neighbors.
Word spread, and suddenly candy customers wanted to see Alexander’s and Marinos’ flicks in the spare stock room. The going rate was a “free” movie with a five cent candy purchase. Customers soon wanted to forego the candy and just see the movie.
This led to the idea that would allow them to enter the cinema industry. Alexander and Marinos, who had taken over management of the candy store a few months earlier, decided to have customers pay three cents and see the movie. The stock room only sat about thirty people. The two friends would hand crank the films all day during multiple showings. It was becoming evident they would need more space, not to mention an automatic projector.
They sold their small interest in the candy store and used the money to rent a larger store room where they could put in nearly one hundred seats. They also bought the automatic projector, sparing them any further elbow fatigue. Eventually the admission cost “soared” to a nickel – hence, their first unofficial nickelodeon.
The rented space in Luzerne soon proved to be too small. In 1909, Thomas and Louis would have to find a bigger space and make the proper structural changes to accommodate the growing crowds and found a space on Houghton Street. This was their first true theatre – officially called the Marinos Theatre. It also came to be known as the Alexander Theatre or the (first) Luzerne Theatre. Thomas’ and Zoe’s first child, Margaret, was born in March of 1909. It proved to be a busy year for them.
In the latter half of the year, the Alexander-Marinos partnership opened their second cinema, the Alpha Theatre on Wyoming Avenue in Kingston (near Kingston Corners). The duo ran both theatres with the help of family members. They were beginning to make a name for themselves.
In 1912, Alexander and Marinos purchased an abandoned church on Wyoming Avenue in Wyoming. Several months of renovations took place and the Wyoming Theatre opened later that year.
(work in progress – more to come)