Harrisburg is filled with history.
There’s so much that even longtime residents may be unaware of a landmark or of its original purpose or significance. The Scottish Rite Cathedral, an imposing stone-and-brick masterpiece near Italian Lake, is one of those.
Scottish Rite, a branch of Freemasons, built the cathedral in 1954 as a venue for meetings, public gatherings, Masonic ceremonies and entertainment events. At the time, the building’s 120-seat theater was state-of-the-art.
Lee Boltz, a longtime member who now serves as the rental and booking agent for the venue, said he’s working to give the cathedral new life by attracting a new crop of shows and events to the theater and other event rooms.
“Unfortunately, the public has forgotten about this place,” Boltz said. “There are people who have lived in Harrisburg for 15 or 20 years and come in here for the first time and their mouths drop open. They had no idea it exists here.”
Not as Popular
As an organization, freemasonry is based on brotherhood, respect and mutual support.
Besides aiding fellow members, Masonic branches typically support a community organization. For instance, Scottish Rite hosts The Learning Center, which is located on the lower level of the building and specializes in teaching children with dyslexia.
“Any child who is referred here does not pay anything,” Boltz said. “They just come in, and the staff works with them. We’ve seen a lot of success stories in our Learning Center, with school grades going up.”
For many decades, the Freemasons thrived. Until the 1980s, 400 to 500 Masons regularly returned for bi-annual reunions at the N. 3rd Street building, Boltz said. At that time, most of the cathedral’s event space, such as the ballroom, dining rooms and the theater, was reserved for Masonic use rather than public events.
About 20 years ago, the Scottish Rite began to see declining membership, due, in part, to an increase in family and work obligations and competing social and extracurricular activities, Boltz said.
“Fraternal organizations are not as popular as they used to be, the same way as churches, clubs, the Rotary, Kiwanis,” he said. “It’s difficult for any of those organizations to find people.”
Dwindling membership numbers drive the need to reinvigorate use of the cathedral’s stunning auditorium and replace funds lost from fewer dues.
Boltz is optimistic about making 2018 a revival year for the theater. He hopes to return it the the auditorium’s golden age, when such major acts as the Four Seasons, the Vogues, Chicago and the Glenn Miller Band graced the stage. To that end, he already has scheduled several upcoming shows and hopes to book more.
The theater is in nearly pristine condition. The décor has a retro, 1960s-era look, but is in fanstastic shape, as is the sound system and the large backstage area.
Aside from theatrical productions, the public can rent out rooms in the cathedral for other events, such as birthday parties, reunions and weddings. Its two kitchens are equipped with the essential appliances and stocked with dishes, glasses, silverware, serving utensils, etc. They no longer cater events themselves, but people can hire their own caterers.
“I’m looking for well-known, national acts, as well as local people,” Boltz said. “It’s going to take a little while to get moving again, and I’m willing to be patient. But I’d really like to see it become a thriving theater, concert hall, banquet facility, wedding reception hall — anything.”
Numerous events are planned over the next few months at the Scottish Rite Cathedral, including:
● March 15-18: Capital Area School for the Arts’ “Little Shop of Horrors.” Ticket price TBA.
● March 17: Open Stage of Harrisburg’s “Diary of Anne Frank.” Tickets start at $18. Show starts 2 p.m.
● April 7: Bluegrass bands Colebrook Road and Serene Green. Tickets $15. Doors 6:30 p.m., show starts 7:30 p.m.
● April 14: Rock & roll bands Grumpy Old Men, Jellybricks & Stereo Glow. Tickets $15 in advance or $18 at the door. Doors 6:30 p.m., show starts 7:30 p.m.
In May, Scottish Rite is planning a Mother’s Day Brunch, complete with an omelet station, eggs made to order, breakfast meats and a carving station for beef sirloin, pork loin and roasted chicken. Adults cost $24.95, children 6 to 12 are $12.95 and children 5 and under are free. The event is by reservation only.
Each December, the theater also hosts the Pennsylvania Regional Ballet’s “Nutcracker.” Throughout the year, The Studio dance school in Enola stages various recitals and performances there. The cathedral currently is negotiating to present an off-broadway comedy, as well.
The Harrisburg Scottish Rite Cathedral is located at 2701 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit the Harrisburg Scottish Rite Events Facebook page or www.valleyofharrisburg.org. For tickets to an event, visit eventbrite.com or call the theater office at 717-238-8867.