Conshohocken Movie Houses By Jack Coll
CONSHOHOCKEN MOVIE HOUSES
During a Seventy Year Span,
There Were Six Movie Houses in the Borough
By Jack Coll
(This information was taken from the book, “Tales of Conshohocken and Beyond)
Written by Jack and Brian Coll
Mention Conshohocken Movie Houses or Theatres and most residents of age will immediately shout out “The Riant Theatre,” and they wouldn’t be wrong. In the borough’s long and rich history the Riant Theatre once located at the corner of First Avenue and Fayette Street served our residents from November of 1921 until it closed a half a century later in the early 1970’s.
But over a one hundred year span Conshohocken had six movie houses within the borough limits including “ Little’s Opera House” built in 1872, followed by “The Gem Theatre,” “The Palace Theatre,” “The Bijou Theatre,” The Riant Theatre,” and “The Forrest Theatre.”
Conshohocken’s very first movie theatre was known as “Little’s Opera House.” Little’s Opera House was built in 1872 by the Washita Tribe No 53 local Order of Red Men. The Opera House was located on the northwest corner of First Avenue and Fayette Street. (The longtime location of F. W. Woolworth’s and Light Parker Furniture Store). The four story building served our community in several different ways. The ground floor was always a retail outlet of one kind or another. The second floor was rented out by William Little, who later purchased the building, hence the name “Little’s Opera House.” In the early years, the second floor auditorium, complete with a full size stage, was used for traveling vaudeville shows, weddings, high school graduations and so-on. The third floor was used for many years as offices and meeting rooms for our town’s civic associations, and the fourth floor was fitted out as the Red Men’s Lodge. The basement served as the community farmer’s market for many years as well as a barber shop complete with bowling alleys and a pool table.
In the early days traveling road shows played to sold out crowds on the second floor, even Barnum and Bailey brought their small circus to Little’s Opera House and performed to the delight of borough residents. In 1905, the opera house went through some major renovations in preparation for the silent film industry.
Conshohocken’s first “Five Cent Movie House” was called “The Bijou Dream” and opened in 1906 located on Hector Street near Poplar Street, it was the first of three theatre’s known as the “Five Cent Movie Houses.” Within a year the Bijou Dream relocated to the corner of Fayette and Elm Street and shortened their name to The Bijou.” The Bijou very quickly became a “Hot Spot” in town selling out most performances even during the week. A five cent admission entitled the viewer to experience a live vaudeville show followed by a silent film. The silent film was accompanied by a live piano player, or an organ player and on special performances a full blown orchestra.
In 1908 an article from the Conshohocken Recorder newspaper reported that wonderful improvements had been made to the Bijou. The Recorder article stated that “Picture shows will be shown clear as crystal and steady as a rock,” referring to the old jumping around of the early silent films. The article also stated that at certain shows, guests of the theatre would receive a “Lucky Number” upon admittance to the theatre. A pre-determined number was hung above the stage, but covered up. In between acts, the number would be revealed, and the lucky number holder would receive five dollars’ worth of gold.
The “Gem Theatre” truly was a gem. The theatre opened in October 1907 and was located in the former McGonigal building in the heart of town at 26 Fayette Street, (Later the home of Benny and Reds Barber Shop). When the Gem Theatre opened on October 21, 1907, the theatre was noted as the most handsome amusement hall in this vicinity. The outside of the theatre was breathtaking, with a large electric sign surrounding the awning. The sign “GEM” was illuminated on both sides, and overhanging the street was a life-size figure of “The Harp Player,” also studded with lights making a dazzling display.
Inside the building, the theatre was 110 feet deep and 60 feet wide, with a seating capacity of 400-500 people per night. The managers and proprietors, Messrs. Rittenhouse and Nyce, stated that the Gem would be conducted as a family house and not for the pleasure of the rough element.
On February 15, 1919, Mr. and Mrs. Charlie Chaplin performed at the Gem Theatre, Charlie’s wife Mildred Harris was starring in a traveling show called “The Price of a Good Time,” and Charlie performed in a comedy. The Charlie and Mildred Chaplin shows cost 10 cents for children and 15 cents for adults. Price gouging was apparently in effect a hundred years ago as Five Cent Movie Houses rarely charged more than the five cents. In the Gem’s defense, Charlie Chaplin in 1907 was this country’s biggest “Rock Star.” It was said by Charlie Chaplin during an interview that he once entered a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest and came in Third Place.
Then there was the “Palace Theatre” once located at 69 Fayette Street. A few residents today might remember Jacobson’s Men’s and Boy’s Store at 69 Fayette Street from the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s, or Domenic’s Shoe Store in the late 1960’s and 1970’s.
The Palace Theatre opened on Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1907, just a month after the Gem Theatre opened. Unlike the Gem Theatre, which had two store-fronts at 26 and 28 Fayette Street and a seating capacity of 400-500 people, the Palace Theatre at 69 Fayette Street had only one store-front and could only seat 200 people.
The Palace Theatre was beautiful on the outside with its wide awning shielding theatre-goers from both the sun and rain with Palace spelled out on both sides of the awning in bright lights. The Palace walls were soundproofed to avoid outside noise from the trolleys and horse and wagons traveling along Fayette Street.
In 1919 Harry Schwalbe saw the future of the film-industry and understood that a lot of money could be made with a first class movie theatre, not a store front like the five-cent movie houses. Schwalbe purchased three properties on the southwest corner of First Avenue and Fayette Street including Zimmerman’s Variety Store. The buildings were demolished and construction began on what was to become “The Riant Theatre.”
As the building neared completion, Schwalbe held a contest in an effort to involve the community in naming the new movie theatre. The late George Chell, who resided at 114 West Fifth Avenue, submitted “Riant,” a French word meaning laughing, smiling, pleasing and cheerful. Chell’s winning submission earned him a one year free pass to all movies and events at the theatre.
When the Riant Theatre opened on November 11, 1921 in conjunction with the dedication of the new Matsonford Bridge, Riant Theatre manager Francis Case announced that the Riant had a new up-to-date Wurlitzer Organ and separate rest rooms for men and women. The first movie shown at the Riant was a silent film called “The Sign On The Door,” starring Norma Talmadge. The movie was screened with great fanfare to the sold-out crowd of 960 viewers.
Silent films were all the rage in the late teens and early 1920’s. A silent film producer Siegmund Lubin founded the Lubin Manufacturing Company in 1902 and created his own camera and projection combination. Lubin began distributing films for Thomas Edison in 1897 and by 1902 he began making his own films and founded his company Lubin Manufacturing. He incorporated in 1909 and by 1910 built a film studio called “Lubinville,” in Philadelphia at 12th and Indiana Streets.
In June of 1914 a major fire destroyed his negatives of his unreleased new films. Lubin made more than 1,000 motion pictures, hundreds of them were filmed in Valley Forge Park and although a number of movies were filmed at Potts Quarry it was never revealed if Lubin filmed on location at that Whitemarsh location. Although a number of Lubin’s films were shown at Conshohocken’s Five Cent Movie Houses we don’t know if any of his silent films were ever viewed at the Riant Theatre as the Lubin Manufacturing Company went out of business in September of 1917, due to World War One erupting and the movie industry lost foreign sales. Siegmund Lubin died on September 11, 1923, at his home in Ventnor New Jersey.
The first talkie was featured at the Riant Theatre in 1928 and many residents might remember going to the Riant Theatre on Wednesday nights to get their dish of the week in an effort to collect the entire set of dishes.
By the late 1960’s and early 1970’s Main Street movie houses throughout the country were struggling with attendance because almost every strip shopping center in the nation had a modern movie house with drive-up easy free parking, no more feeding the meters. In 1970 the Riant Theatre held a Grand Re-Opening for general rated films. But the residents just weren’t supportive of the main street theatre. By 1972 the Riant was only open on weekends, showing triple XXX flicks, with movie billboards showing the XXX movies stars in all their nothing for all our children to see. By 1973, the Riant Theatre marquee went blank and just blended in with a number of the boarded-up store fronts that lined Fayette Street at that time.
Then there was “The Forrest Theatre,” once located on the southwest corner of Hector and Forrest Streets. The early 1920’s proved the Riant Theatre to be very popular and a money maker. So in 1926, George Chapman of Germantown purchased a row of seven old wood framed houses, said to be the oldest in the borough at that time and owned by the late John Henry Stemple at the corner of Hector and Forrest Streets. At that time Chapman was a veteran movie house business man having constructed six other successful movie houses.
Chapman built the Forrest Theatre out of brick and had a seating capacity of 1200 movie goers making the Forrest Theatre the largest of its kind within the borough limits. The new theatre opened on October 24, 1927 and was a scene befitting a Hollywood premier. More than 2,500 people gathered on Hector Street as the 6 pm show-time neared. Crowds gathered at the front door of the theatre waiting for the doors just to open.
The Conshohocken Recorder newspaper reported:
“West Hector Street was filled with a mass of people and motor
cars yesterday from early in the evening until late at night, as
thousands of persons attended the opening shows of the
Forrest Theatre, Conshohocken’s newest movie house.”
The opening feature on that fall evening in 1927 was “The Blood Ship,” complete with newsreels and a comedy. The Forrest Theatre opened with two sold out shows on opening night and a sold-out show the following night but in the years to come the theatre experienced more downs than ups. By 1950 the theatre had closed for good and in 1951 was sold to R. A. Humphrys & Sons Inc., manufactures of canvas and cotton goods.
Conshohocken has had six movie houses or theatres over the years. The Palace, Gem and Bijou were all gone by the time the Riant Theatre opened in 1921. The Riant enjoyed a 50 year run as a movie house while the Forrest Theatre was around for 22 years, although it was really only in operation for 15 years. The Opera House had the longest run if you include the vaudeville shows staged from 1872.
So there you have it, the history of movie houses in Conshohocken. For more information on all the movie houses listed above refer to the book, “Tales of Conshohocken & Beyond,” there are a limited number of books remaining at Coll’s Custom Framing located at 324 Fayette Street.