Death of a theater: reflections on the efforts to save the Warner
January 28, 2018
West Chester PA -- The Hotel Warner is one of downtown West Chester's great attractions offering quality accommodations for the business and leisure traveler. But up until the 1980s, it was the Warner Theater, the grandest movie house in the region. Then it became obsolete in the face of growing competition and threatened with demolition. Recently, a film called Time for the Warner has surfaced that shows the efforts of the community to save the Warner Theater.
This prompted Eric Lorgus, a life-long resident and community leader in the Borough, to share his memories from that time:
"Watching it brought back many fond memories. The Warner was truly an exceptional movie palace. I remember going there as a kid, and often there was a line that extended up to Woolworth’s and around onto Gay Street. Only once was the balcony open during my many visits there.
"As for the timeline, Citizens to Save the Warner was most likely started in the mid 80’s. Henry Greenburg and Gary Smith (a former manager when RKO Stanley Warner owned it) bought the building (along with the stores) from Warner Bros. Studios in 1977. They paid $125,000! They had grand plans to fix it up, but struggled to break even. I think the air conditioning system was the original. It must have cost a fortune to heat in the winter.
"Its nearest competition was a twin-screen theater called the Eric in the West Goshen Shopping Center. Eventually, the Eric expanded to five screens (ironic that it didn’t last that long itself). At some point Henry’s father, Ben, replaced Gary Smith as his partner.
"Before Greenburg stopped showing movies in the early 80’s, he built two “shoeboxes” within the auditorium, to create two smaller screening rooms in addition to the auditorium. The construction was shoddy and you could hear the sound from the other screens no matter where you sat. Kay Eby and I went to see "Chariots of Fire" when the shoeboxes were there. That was 1981.
"There were some attempts at live performances, and a brief flirtation with adult movies. I remember the dressing rooms for the live performances were built under the stage, but there was some kind of water problem that kept flooding the space below the stage.*
"One of the problems for non-movie uses was the stage was very shallow, maybe fifteen feet. Theaters similar to the Warner had been built during the vaudeville era, with deeper stages. The West Chester Warner had organ grills but it never had an organ. I think the movie screen was mounted very near the back wall of the stage.
"In the heyday of the Warner, I remember when a movie began, the projection was always shown on a thin curtain that then dramatically withdrew, allowing the clear picture to be shown on the screen. Back then, movies almost always ended with a card that said “The End”. Credits were much shorter in those days, and were usually shown at the beginning.
"In the video, I recognized Kate Eby and Bev Fox in one scene. I recognized a few others but can’t remember their names. I was a member of Citizens to Save The Warner, and the meetings were often hosted by Dina Bryce. The biggest problem was that after Greenburg stopped showing movies, he was not interested in anyone else saving the theater. He wanted it demolished. The Warner’s only hope was eminent domain. Greenburg applied for a demolition permit when I was on borough council, and we were able to find reasons to deny it several times. After my term ended, the next council also denied the permit but forgot to give a legitimate reason. Attorneys got involved and Council had to reluctantly issue the permit or face a lawsuit.
"After council approved the demolition, I visited Rich Fazio, who was the new head of the Finance Committee on borough council. I showed him a plan that had the borough take the property through eminent domain, and then lease it to the West Chester Area Economic Development Council (WAEDCO). WAEDCO would have been the landlord for the stores, but by then the interior may have been too messy for using the auditorium. The cash flow from the store rents could easily have paid for the debt service, assuming a FMV of $500-600K. Fazio took it under advisement but it never got to the full council. There was also an outreach about eminent domain to Bob Thompson who was then one of the county commissioners. I can no longer recall Bob’s exact reaction, but he was unmoved. I think years later he regretted it.
"The actual demolition began in October 1986. John O’Brien and I went to see Judge Sugarman in hopes of getting a last minute stay of execution. At the time, Sugarman’s office was in what used to be Kaufmann’s Furniture Store (now the law offices of Unruh Turner Burke & Frees). As we sat in the hall, waiting for our meeting with Sugarman, we could see the demolition beginning from a rear window. Only one corner on the alley side had been knocked off. John O'Brien and I sat there brainstorming a legal basis to stop the demolition. When we realized we had none, we cancelled the meeting and left.
"The next day, a reporter from the new Neighbors section of The Philadelphia Inquirer called me. She had heard about the meeting John and I tried to have. I was so upset I refused to talk to her. But I do remember the demolition began just as the Chester County Neighbors section debuted.
"The demolition took forever. The building was so well built. Steel girders that held up the roof had to be torched apart. It was a faint consolation that the Warner put up a good fight to tear it down. Six months after the demolition was completed, they sold the property to Bill & Debra Waughn, who were the owners of Visual Expansion Gallery, one of the stores on the property.
"Among the historic preservation battles that were lost in West Chester over the decades, the loss of the Warner was probably the most tragic. The building was absolutely amazing inside. It needed work but was not beyond repair. It would have become a priceless community resource, not to mention a singular part of West Chester’s amazing architecture.
"When I got involved with the "Save the Barclay Grounds" movement, I felt a sense of déjà vu. It was another thing that everyone agreed should be saved and borough council was sympathetic. Ironically, I advocated the same strategy as with the Warner Theater -– eminent domain. I was so surprised (and eternally grateful) that council agreed to start the process. Once that movement gained steam, the landowner agreed to sell and eminent domain was taken off the table. I am not a big fan of eminent domain, but in certain cases, especially when the owner wants to sell or demolish the property, I think it may be justified.
"I recently joined the board of Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center, which has repurposed the historic armory into a 327 seat theater in the main stage. I see the effort that goes into marketing those 300+ seats. Had the Warner been saved, it would have been a huge challenge to fill its 1,500+ seats. That’s not to say it couldn’t be done. Regardless, I am absolutely thrilled that West Chester now has a performing arts center.
"To all those who hatched that idea and made it happen – THANK YOU!"
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*An underground creek flows directly beneath the Warner building which would often flood when it rained. The creek is part of the reason the property was not developed until 1930. -- editor
e-mail Malcolm Johnstone