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Nineteenth Street Theatre A Jazz Age Gem

By Frank Whelan
Published On: Aug 17 2011 09:21:18 AM CDT
Updated On: Jun 10 2011 10:04:49 AM CDT

In the 1920s a movie theater was not just a place you went to see a movie. It was designed to take patrons' minds off the workaday world and transport them to a stately Spanish palace or court of an English king, or at least what the theaters' designers thought these places should look like.

The Lehigh Valley once had plenty of these places but few have escaped the wrecker's ball. Among those that have is the Jazz Age gem that is Allentown's 19th Street Theatre. And it all began on May 19, 1928.

On that morning readers of the local newspapers were greeted with the headline "Rubin Maniker & Company Building Theatre in the New Nineteenth Street Section of Allentown." The architects rendering showed what this mini movie palace would look like. With its bejeweled elephant heads it evoked the fabled palaces of distant India. Perhaps even more important was the excitement and bustle around the new theater that the rendering conveyed. Smart women in cloche hats, a 20s icon, were shown with dashing boyfriends getting out of boxy long automobiles to gaze in wonder.

For many people this ballyhoo, to use a 1920s word, was all part of the deal. No one knew at the time that the stock market crash was just around the corner.

A mere 10 years before 19th Street had been little more than a dirt road with a few farms. Now thanks to two miracles of the 20s, real estate development and the rise of the automobile, 19th Street had been transformed into a suburban shopping mecca that its developers claimed would one day rival Hamilton Street.

Rubin Maniker's construction company had played a role in this transformation. He had come to the Lehigh Valley only 10 years before from Bayonne, New Jersey and was being hailed in the press. "Even though the Nineteenth Street Theatre was the final venture of his career, it would be an eternal monument to a great builder," said the Morning Call. Working closely with Maniker was Alex Minker, secretary of the company. "Mr. Minker...slim of stature" had a "debonair manner which impresses all who meet him." Minker was said to be at work on the firm's next venture, the Capitol Theater at 1022 Hamilton Street that would open, it was claimed, in November, 1928.

As the summer wore on construction of the 19th Street Theatre was progressing rapidly. One of the advantages of the new theater, the newspapers pointed out, was that unlike downtown Allentown, there would be no problem with a place to park. The free lot at Albright Avenue between Gordon and Allen Streets had plenty of space. Local boosters had even come up with a slogan, "19th Street, Where Parking Is a Pleasure."

The 19th Street Theatre opened on September 17, 1928. It was timed to take advantage of the Allentown Fair, which in those days took place in late September. An article in the Morning Call the day before heralded it as "Allentown's new half a million dollar theater."

Although the theater was not set to open until 7, crowds had already started to gather in front of the box office at 5:30. Despite the promise of plenty of parking, the newspapers reported that by 6 p.m., all the spaces available were taken. Those that came later were told they would have to come back for the 9 p.m. show; all of the 1000 seats in the theater were sold.

It was 6:15 when Rudolph Trinkle, guest organist from downtown Allentown's Strand Theater, sat down at the organ and began to play a selection of pieces from the Victor Herbert operetta "Naughty Marietta."

When the music was over local attorney and political figure Lawrence Rupp came out briefly to announce his support for movies and attacked those who called motion pictures immoral. "I cannot see wherein movies exert a bad influence. To me every picture seems to indicate that virtue is always rewarded and that vice is punished."

With that, the audience settled in to watch the first run Paramount film "The Sawdust Paradise." It featured actress Esther Ralston, described in the newspapers as a "luscious blond Venus," playing a carnival dancer and her various romantic entanglements with her fellow "carnies" But at the end the kindly preacher, Isaiah, played by actor Hobart Bosworth, returns her to the "straight and narrow."

Perhaps some were more interested in Ralston's appearance in a diving costume "with spangles" and the six chorus girls "with near perfect figures" than the plot. But the spectacular carnival fire that ended the film must have caught everybody attention.

With a popular opening like that, it seemed that the 19th Street Theatre could only be a success. But it was not. Something had been neglected. The theater was equipped to show silent movies and "talkies" were what drew the big audiences in 1928. And the builders of the 19th Street Theatre had over extended themselves. By December they were bankrupt. The 19th Street closed. Newspaper articles quoted "veteran showmen" who claimed "Allentown was largely over-movied." The Capitol Theater on Hamilton Street was never finished and eventually torn down.

But the 19th Street Theatre was to have a second act. It re-opened as a sound theater in 1930 and was a popular second-run house with cheap seats for Depression era audiences. It survived the rise of television, dodged the wrecker's balls that destroyed its grander Hamilton Street sisters and even managed to kick up its heels in 1958 by showing the "scandalous" French film, "And God Created Woman," starring Brigitte Bardot.

Since 1957 it has been the home of the Civic Theater, formerly the Civic Little Theater, featuring local plays and providing refuge to those seeking films that they might not find at the mall--not bad for a grande dame over 80.