Theatre History

 

Newspaper ad from opening day, January 28, 1938. (Click on image to enlarge)

At the Helm. Thomas and Alec Alexander. January, 1938.

Early ticket stub.



The Forty Fort Theatre broke ground 1936. It was a pivotal year for the Alexander family. Louis Marinos Sr. had died. Thomas’ eldest son Alec, who had continued to work in the industry for other theatre owners, grew tired of the way his new bosses ran things, and approached his father about building another theatre of their own. Alexander partnered with the Comerford Corporation and promised to build a state of the art showplace at the southern end of Forty Fort. It would be a gift to a town that needed a theatre and a legacy to his sons. (Note: A second theatre, called The Institute, operated for a short while by several managers including the Alexanders and Marinos’ on Forty Fort’s northern end)

Thomas Alexander was president of the new theatre and son Alec was vice-president. Comerford executives J.J. O’Leary and Charles Ryan were named treasurer and secretary respectively.

Alec Alexander, vice-president of the Forty Fort Theatre seated behind his desk. Circa 1938. (Click on image to enlarge)

On Saturday, January 29th, 1938, The Forty Fort Theatre opened with the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland film, Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry. Alexander’s promise of a grand showplace was realized with its art-deco lighting, terrazzo floored lobby, spacious auditorium, ruby red drapes and carpeting, and the stunning ornately hand-detailed golden proscenium arch that surrounded the silver screen. Uniformed ushers stood sentry at each aisle as patrons walked past large promotional displays that featured Clark Gable, Cary Grant, and Carole Lombard. On the west side of Wyoming Valley, the Forty Fort Theatre was “the” showplace.

Year One. The Forty Fort Theatre as it looked shortly after opening in 1938. Wyoming Valley residents my be interested in noting that Wyoming Avenue was brick at the time and street car tracks are clearly visible. (Click on image to enlarge)

Same day. Different angle.

Original ushers jacket from 1938 - still in great condition.

Early shot of auditorium. January, 1938. (click image to enlarge)

3rd Anniversary ad from January, 1941. (Click on image to enlarge)

All of Thomas Alexander’s sons worked at the theatre, but when they were called to serve their country during the second World War, he returned from a semi-retirement at the age of sixty to man the helm of the Forty Fort Theatre.

Alec Alexander standing next to his dad, Thomas before departing for the theatre. In the background is Alec's brother Peter. Circa 1940. (Click on image to enlarge)

In October of 1946, Thomas Alexander died after falling down a staircase in his Kingston, Pennsylvania home. But his four sons, Alec, Frank, Peter, and Taki (pronounced tie-key) continued in their father’s footsteps, and the Forty Fort Theatre would operate for another forty-two years – and a total of fifty consecutive years.

Thomas Alexander passed away on October 3, 1946. His obituary from the Times Leader, Wilkes-Barre, PA.

In 1950, the Alexander family bought out the Comerford’s interest, and owned it solely.

In 1953 Forty Fort was the first theatre in the Wyoming Valley to introduce the wide screen Cinemascope format and stereo sound, with 20th Century Fox’s production of The Robe – the first major motion picture to be produced in the wide screen process. A curtain featuring the Greek Key replaced the ruby red curtain.

The Greek Key curtain that opened before a cinemascope wide screen, became an iconic symbol of the theatre. It replaced the ruby red curtain in 1953.

Television came to the area the same year when WBRE-TV hit the airwaves. TV in the Wyoming Valley was not an immediate overwhelming success, but within two years it posed a serious threat to the theatre business. The movie industry reacted with not only Cinemascope and stereo, but 3D and other, more gimmicky formats and promotions to lure audiences away from the little screen and into theatres. It worked for a while.  But the industry and theatres around the country noticed a steady decline at the box office.

Newspaper clipping assuring Forty Fort residents Sunday movies were a lock. (click on image to enlarge)

1953 included another turning point in the theatre’s history.  Sunday Movies. Due to “unwritten” blue laws, the borough forbid the showing of movies on Sundays for the first fifteen years of the theatre’s operation. The thinking was it would interfere with churchgoing activities.  The management stressed that performances wouldn’t start until 2:00 PM, well after any church service, but citizens still balked deeming such self-indulgent activities were inappropriate on Sunday.  Finally, in the November general election, the motion passed, and movies were shown at the theatre starting at 2:00PM.

The 1960’s were a bit of a rollercoaster ride as the movie business recovered for a while. The Forty Fort Theatre, like many theatres of the day offered promotional giveaways. Dish Night in particular was extremely popular.

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!!! Mary Poppins plays at the theatre in 1964.

End of May, 1964. Here's a shot of the lobby of the Forty Fort Theatre. This is about a year before the popcorn and soda machines were added. The standee in the foreground shows children's matinee "The Kettles on Old MacDondald's Farm," with Ma and Pa Kettle. Also playing, Elvis in "Kissin' Cousins." Bob Hope's "A Global Affair" was slated to start the following week, but theatre records indicate it never played in 1964. (Click on image to enlarge)

In 1965, the theatre went through a major remodeling. In the lobby, the concession stand had a lighted canopy placed over it, and the theatre finally added a popcorn and soda machine. Popcorn was popped fresh throughout the day and evening. The lobby walls were painted gold. In the auditorium, new carpeting was added to coordinate with freshly painted walls. Improvements to the projection booth, restrooms, box office and entranceway were also done. The adjoining store rooms were also refurbished.

Brothers Taki and Peter Alexander in front of the theatre, Summer 1966.

Virginia and Alec Alexander, theatre lobby, late 1960's.

On April 1, 1968, the industry began rating films. The first ratings were G for General Audiences, M for Mature Audiences, R which meant restricted, and X which prohibited anyone under 16 (later 18) from entering the theatre. The ratings system was initially intended as a gimmick to lure curious patrons to see more risque, adult-themed films. Even today, the coveted R rating still attracts the younger demographic. The 1960’s closed with what were considered at the time, groundbreaking films that challenged the acceptable standards of the era. These films included The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy. The latter received an X rating upon its initial release. It was later granted an R rating. The Forty Fort Theatre did what it could keep up with the changing industry.

With the dawning of a new decade, the 1970?s saw Frank’s son Thomas F. Alexander join the family business. He would be followed a few years later by Peter’s son, Thomas C. Alexander.

Matinee Days. Thomas C. Alexander on a Saturday afternoon in front of the popcorn machine. Circa 1971.

The Varsity. Taki and Peter Alexander manning the concession stand. Circa 1971.

Date Night. Taki Alexander in the theatre lobby on a Saturday night. Circa 1971.

Peter and Mary Alexander (my mom and dad) in the theatre lobby - circa 1971.

Peter Alexander in the theatre lobby. 1971.


In 1972, Hurricane Agnes produced three days of heavy rain along the eastern seaboard, causing massive flooding that at the time was the greatest natural disaster in US history. The Susquehanna River overflowed its banks and the Wyoming Valley was the hardest hit region in the state. The Forty Fort Theatre had just begun a run of the Clint Eastwood film Dirty Harry when the flood hit.

Disaster. Just days after the water receded, the Wyoming Valley was faced with a massive cleanup. It took two months for the Forty Fort Theatre to open for business again.

The theatre was closed for two months and reopened after an exhaustive clean up on August 23rd with the Woody Allen comedy, Play It Again, Sam.

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The movie industry's popular slogan in the late 60's and early 70's was "Movies Are Better Than Ever." When the 1972 flood hit, the always clever Taki Alexander used humor to help lift some spirits as theatre clean up was in process. A visiting Bob Hope loved the play on words so much, he "borrowed" it for a monologue on one of his TV specials

Initially after the flood, business was brisk, but the movie exhibition industry was beginning to change. Twin theatres were the new craze. They were the forerunner to the megaplexes of today. The Alexanders considered for some time actually twining the Forty Fort Theatre, going as far as having plans drawn up. But while they were considering that possibility, the state had plans of its own. One of the original proposals was for a new bypass road called the Cross Valley Expressway to go right through the neighborhood where the theatre stood. However, the state eventually abandoned that plan, shifting the route slightly south, and the Alexander’s ditched the twinning notion, and remodeled the theater in the mid 1970?s, choosing instead to maintain its single screen charm.

A new marquee was installed in 1974, followed by new seats and a redecorated lobby in 1976; little of which mattered as first run product became harder and harder to secure. The Saturday afternoon children’s matinees that featured everything from The Three Stooges, Dracula, and Godzilla to Captain Nemo and Hercules went by the wayside by 1977. The age of the single screen theatre was fading.

Blockbuster sci-fi spectaculars had replaced the disaster epics of a few years earlier and merchandise tie-ins with the growing corporate theatre chains were the wave of the future.

Concession stand in the lobby of Forty Fort Theatre, Forty Fort PA. June of 1985. Left to right: Peter and Mary Alexander (parents of Thomas C. Alexander), cousin Efthimia Koutrufini (visiting from Greece), Taki Alexander, Alec Alexander and Thomas C. Alexander. Very happy days - but it was close to the end of our theatre era. Closed in 1988.

Peter Alexander manning the box office in February, 1986. "Out of Africa" was playing at the time. (Click on image to enlarge)

In October of 1986, Peter Alexander, who had taken over operations of the Forty Fort Theatre some years earlier, passed away unexpectedly. Alec and Frank had retired, leaving Taki and his two nephews to run the aging movie palace. In a new landscape dotted with cineplexes, the Forty Fort Theatre became the last bastion of an era long gone. Its grand trappings began to show wear and equipment became outdated (Though they improved the sound system and converted from the standard change-over/carbon arc style projectors to the more updated platter/Xenon lamp units in 1984).

Auditorium Circa 1987.

The crowds dwindled as competition for first run product grew fierce. With great reluctance, the family decided to close the doors of the Forty Fort Theatre on leap day, Sunday, February 29th, 1988.

A video capture of the last batch of corn being popped at the theatre. Thomas F. Alexander in foreground. Thomas C. Alexander manning the controls.

The crowds that last evening were not overflowing, but respectable. Ironically, the theatre’s final attraction was Fatal Attraction. “No light at this end of town anymore,” a tearful Taki Alexander lamented.

Video capture of the marquee on the last day of operation.

The Forty Fort Theatre – the last single screen theatre left in Wyoming Valley was no more. The days of the neighborhood theatre were gone.

Final Attraction. Ironically "Fatal Attraction" was the final film. Here the last patrons leaving the theatre's very last showing on Leap Day, February 29, 1988.

Today, it’s possible new that generations driving by at a quick glance may not realize it was a movie house at one time. When the Alexander family sold it to Daico Development in 1988, the building was named the Daico Theatre Complex. It was sold again in 1994 and the new owners appropriately named it the Forty Fort Theatre Building. The outside hasn’t changed too much, with the exception of the removed marquee and a newly designed front facing Wyoming Avenue. The inside has been completed altered. A second floor and an elevator were installed in the late 1980’s. It houses mostly medical offices today.

Ed. Note: A recent correspondence with the Musto family who currently owns the building was enlightening. It was learned that they feature old photos, plaques, and posters as an homage to the building’s days as a theatre. We hope to obtain more information about the theatre in it’s current phase. It’s interesting to note that as a theatre, it was a place where people could go to forget their worries and enjoy themselves. Today, as a medical facility, it serves an equally positive purpose – where people can go to get healed.

The Forty Fort Theatre as it looks today. It houses mostly medical offices.