When the West Shore Theatre’s marquee went dark, one thing was for sure. It wasn’t going to stay dark for long.
The community rallied, making it known that they wanted the show to go on at this New Cumberland landmark.
The historic movie theater has been a community mainstay since opening its doors in 1939. Nearly everyone you talk to in New Cumberland has a story about a fun time, a first date or a favorite movie they saw at there. Over the years, as movie-going habits changed, the theater’s lineup, hours and audiences dwindled.
The Art Deco-style theater, designed by Pennsylvania architect William H. Lee, was put up for sale by former owner Fred Bollen in December 2015. This past March, the father-son pair of Joe and Ben Kowalczyk bought it for $122,000 at a bankruptcy auction.
The Kowalczyks, aware of community interest in the theater’s revival, negotiated a lease that will allow the grassroots group, Friends of the West Shore Theatre, to outright own the old movie palace within five years, according to Doug Morrow, New Cumberland’s mayor and a Friends board member.
This public got a firsthand accounting of developments in May during a packed, standing-room-only, community meeting at the New Cumberland Fire Department’s social hall. Philip Horn, retired executive director of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts—also a New Cumberland resident and Friends board member—led the community in a visioning session.
“What are the best uses of the West Shore Theatre for the benefit of the community?” Horn asked. “We want to squeeze every idea out of you.”
Nearly 150 community members brainstormed in small groups, presenting their ideas on notepad sheets that eventually filled the room’s front wall. Attendees envisioned the theater being used for everything from open mic nights to gallery space, corporate trainings to homeschool events. But one prevalent theme emerged—the community wanted movies to return to the big screen.
“My mom would tell me stories about she and her girlfriends going to the movies,” said Steve Parthemore, co-owner of the town’s Parthemore Funeral Home and a lifelong New Cumberland resident. “They would sit in every other seat so that, when the boys came in, they would fill in the seats.”
As business owner, Parthemore said that he sees the Bridge Street building as the centerpiece to a healthy downtown district.
“It’s wonderful that the community is coming together and there’s such interest in the theater,” he said. “I hope to see the theater reinvented but still retain its nostalgia.”
Horn recalled his own hometown movie theater in Los Angeles being torn down. He said that, locally, there are only a few classic theaters still operating, including the Carlisle Theatre and Gettysburg’s Majestic Theater.
“I’ve been in every county in Pennsylvania and have seen these kinds of things happen all over the state,” he said. “They don’t build theaters of this kind anymore.”
Moving forward, various directions and issues are being considered, according to Friends board member and New Cumberland resident Jennifer Zaborney.
First, the group is comparing bids and plans to improve the concessions area and remove the first few rows of the theater’s 450 seats to construct a small stage. A few minor repairs are also needed. Otherwise, the building has been deemed sound.
“A lot of thought is being put into the space and making it multipurpose,” said Zaborney, who notes that she and her husband had their first date at the West Shore Theatre.
Financially, Zaborney and Morrow said that the group is studying sustainability models, which would include revenue from movie ticket sales, venue rental fees, fundraisers, donations and corporate sponsorships.
To date, the group has received about $12,000 in community donations—“without really even asking,” Morrow said. Profits from an August fundraiser added another $15,000.
Morrow said the group, operating under the nonprofit financial umbrella of the Harrisburg-based Foundation for Enhancing Communities, may seek its own nonprofit status at a later date. They need to raise roughly $44,000 in operating costs annually, which would cover taxes, utilities and rent, he said. The group has identified potential donors to underwrite new projection equipment, estimated at $80,000.
The outpouring of community support, including knowledgeable volunteers, has helped contain costs, Morrow said. In addition to Horn’s volunteer consulting, an architect is donating services for the theater’s improvements. Retired founding director of the Whitaker Center, Tom Stone, is lending a hand, along with many others.
What’s going to happen as a result of all this community support, fact-finding and planning?
Morrow said that the theater will begin showing films this holiday season, with evening movies available on a regular basis in 2019. The Friends group envisions implementing community ideas for classic movies, film series, independent movies, family-friendly films, student-produced films and more. Eventually, the group hopes to hire someone to manage the theater’s calendar and bookings.
Morrow said that memories are motivating him on.
“In 1948, my father [who is now 82] went door to door delivering lists of movies that would play that evening,” he said. “He got paid by receiving free tickets to the matinees. He remembers going to the theater during World War II and the Korean War to watch war clips. The theater was the community’s connection to the war.”
It still holds the key to community connection, he said.
“When I was mayor of Camp Hill, nearly every meeting began with someone [lamenting] the loss of the downtown theater [the former Hill Theatre],” Morrow said. “I don’t want that same thing to happen to New Cumberland.”
The West Shore Theatre is located at 317 Bridge St., New Cumberland. To volunteer, donate or stay in the loop, join the Facebook group, “Friends of the West Shore Theatre.”