45th Anniversary is Celebrated
by Marita Lowman, Staff Writer
Thursday, February 3, 1983
Forty Fort – The owners of the stately Forty Fort Theatre remember days when neighborhood movie houses were the norm, admission tickets sold for a dime and children and elderly couples flocked to afternoon matinees.
Today, the Forty Fort Theatre – where “E.T.” is playing its eighth week – is the only neighborhood theater in the Wyoming Valley.
Audiences have dwindled.
Inflation has driven admission tickets to $1.50 for children and $3 for adults.
Movies are sexier, more violent and often filled with language the owners consider obscene.
Most patrons are younger than 35.
But the theater owners have rolled with the times – and successfully so.
A week ago, they celebrated the Forty Fort Theatre’s 45th anniversary.
They expect to be around for the 50th, but admit staying in business is harder now than when their father, the late Thomas Alexander, pioneered local movie houses early in the century.
Alexander’s four sons have inherited their father’s zeal for the movie industry and have carried on his legacy “out of pride,” said son Thomas, now president of the family corporation.
The four – Alec, 70, Frank, 68, Peter, 65, and Thomas, 56, – “have the movie business in (their) blood,” Thomas said.
They grew up with stories of their father’s first nicklette – a store room in Luzerne where he hand-cranked silent films for audiences who paid a nickel apiece admission and watched the 20-minute shows from rows of folding chairs.
They like to tell of how he expanded business from 1910 to 1930, acquiring full-size theaters in Luzerne, Kingston, Edwardsville, Wyoming and Larksville.
In those days, they helped him sell tickets, and acted as ushers and janitors.
Their sons and grandsons now do the same thing.
In 1930, Alexander Sr. sold all of his holdings to Comerford Theaters, Inc. of Scranton, then retired for seven years.
“He built the Forty Fort Theatre in 1937, in conjunction with Comerford Theaters, because he couldn’t stand the inactivity,” Thomas said.
The theater opened Jan. 28, 1938 with “Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry,” a Judy Garland – Mickey Rooney movie.
The building, at 920 Wyoming Ave., near the Kingston boundary, seated 1,000.
Rows have since been widened, and seating scattered and reduced to about 600 so audiences can better see the screen, the owners said.
Popcorn – now selling for 60 cents to $1.25 – first sold for 35 cents. But it was not even offered until the 1950’s, because Alexander Sr. refused to compete with a nearby corner grocery store.
“‘We are in business to sell movies. They are in business to sell candy,’ he would tell us,” Peter said.
Peter remembers when theater owners could pick and choose their films, and show as many as three a week.
“Hollywood was producing 500 to 600 features a year,” Peter said. “We were showing 156 of them. But now we need a booking agent in Philadelphia to help us get films. Now it’s a seller’s market, not a buyer’s.”
Both he and Thomas said they dislike the “violence, sex and language” found in many modern films.
But they admit that today’s pictures are “technically better.”
They usually select their offerings according to what will sell, occasionally according to what they consider art.
When we’ve had to, we’ve all worked two jobs to keep this theater open. It’s a family business and we love it,” Thomas said.