Audience Appreciation

How the century-old Colonial Theatre helped rescue Phoenixville.

The Association for the Colonial Theatre’s Mary Foote and Kenneth Mumma (Photo by John Wynn)Andee Miskiewicz has more than a modicum of creativity running through her veins. That energy, along with a spirit of volunteerism, plays well in a suddenly artsy, once-industrial borough like Phoenixville. Miskiewicz is the creative force behind this month’s BlobFest, the Colonial Theatre’s annual tribute to The Blob, the 1958 sci-fi thriller that remains the century-old movie house’s claim to fame.

The first year Miskiewicz was on the BlobFest committee, she designed a game in which folks had to find stenciled meteors all over Phoenixville. Smaller plaster space rocks also hung in businesses, and the clues centered on trivia about the town’s history. She also conceived the fire extinguisher parade (a fire extinguisher saves the day in the film) and built the Blobflat (put your head through it, and have a picture taken of the Blob eating you).

Miskiewicz cast the blob trophies for the annual Shorty Awards, named in honor of the late Shorty Yeaworth who owned the Chester Springs company that delivered The Blob. She’s also designed posters and T-shirts and two floaty pens. “I’m the ‘Q’ of BlobFest,” she says, in reference to James Bond’s weapons and research-development guy. “It’s my great pleasure to dream up and execute wild projects for our hometown festival.”

- Advertisement -

The Colonial Theatre’s renaissance offers resounding proof that a reclaimed theater can have an enormous impact on a community’s economic, social and cultural well-being. A decade ago, the place was dark, and Phoenixville’s main drag, Bridge Street, remained largely quiet. But with each passing year—as more and more patrons flocked to the theater—restaurants, boutiques and galleries opened.

“There were already signs of the revitalization of the town,” says Kenneth Mumma, CEO of New Century Bank in town, and board president of the nonprofit Association for the Colonial Theatre, which owns the venue. “There was new, young leadership already taking responsibility for making changes. But if someone hadn’t taken on the Colonial, it would’ve been hard for the rest of the revitalization to happen. There still would’ve been just too much blight.”

The mid- to late-1990s saw the advent of Phoenixville’s growth as a bedroom community. As its neighbors along the Route 422 corridor witnessed unprecedented residential and commercial expansion, the old steel town was perceived as a place for good buys. As such, it became an attractive locale for investors looking to rehab and rent, luring white-collar tenants and homeowners looking for convenient entertainment options. Phoenixville was becoming hip.

“It was a convergence of factors,” says Mumma, who lives in Chester Springs. “The theater was one of the catalyzing influences that pulled it together. We were in the right place at the right time. It would’ve been tough to do what we did 10 years earlier. Twenty years ago, when I first came here, many didn’t want to say they were from Phoenixville. Now, it’s with pride that they say they are.”

ACT had two basic goals after acquiring the Colonial: to make the facility usable and attractive again, and then put it to use. “Once we had the building back in physical shape, it was a demonstrative, positive sign,” Mumma says. “It made the theater visible, and it started bringing people into town.”

- Partner Content -

First, it was just films. Then came live theater, music, dance, and other community and family-oriented events. “There was enough activity that we created a niche—an arts culture—and then a market for something to do before or after the theater,” says Mumma. “It helped our town gain a certain confidence.”

Continued on page 2 …

Once inside, people complained about the old seats. ACT said, “OK, if you want new ones, we need the money,” Mumma recalls. “People stepped up.”

Soon, second-floor offices were added, and the long-closed balcony reopened. And there’s room to grow: ACT wants to open the entire stage, not just the portion in front of the stationary screen. In addition, a pipe organ will return to the facility. And while it’s not the original, which was sold to the Chicago Historical Society in the early 1990s, it is a period piece rebuilt and restored by the Theatre Organ Society of the Delaware Valley.

Finishing touches involve returning the entire interior—wallpaper included—to its glory days. “We want it to look really sharp,” Mumma says, adding that ACT wants to raise a replica of the theater’s long-missing center chandelier. “So the theater is a real showcase like it was during its Vaudeville days.”

Narberth-based Point Entertainment began booking national-caliber live music acts at the venue in 2004, drawing younger audiences from throughout the region. “It’s a great, intimate venue,” says Point owner Rich Kardon.

- Advertisement -

The Colonial Theatre was built for $30,000 in 1903 by Harry Brownback, the secretary-treasurer of Griffin-Smith-Hill Pottery, the producers of famed Majolica. In 1901, a fire at the Church Street plant and other financial setbacks forced Brownback and the board to close the plant. He used proceeds from the sale to purchase two adjoining properties on Bridge Street in what was then a thriving industrial town considered the “Gateway to Valley Forge.”

Among the theater’s early highlights: In 1917, the Great Houdini freed himself from a burglar-proof safe; the Colonial had its own orchestra led by Fred Neiman, Phoenixville’s mortician and an excellent violinist; in 1925, the Colonial presented its last stage show, Very Good Eddie, which had begun a successful run on Broadway in 1915; and three years later, it screened The Jazz Singer, the first “talkie.”

Through various owners, the Colonial’s heyday lasted into the 1950s, when scenes from The Blob were filmed there. Like others of its ilk, the theater struggled to compete with the chain movie houses. In the mid-’70s, the Colonial diversified its offerings, hosting an annual magic show, a Halloween event, and even Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. At that time, Jim Breneman, a local accountant looking for storage, brought his 20-ton Kimball organ to the Colonial. After his death, and more hard times, his business partner, Sam LaRosa, sold the organ and closed the theater’s doors in 1992. ACT entered the picture a few years later, signing an agreement of sale with the Phoenixville Area Economic Development Corporation.

Thus far, ACT has spent $2 million to refurbish the Colonial, but ACT executive director Mary Foote acknowledges there’s a long way to go. It costs $36,000 a year in utilities alone to keep the doors open; $100 a day keeps the lights on. Box office revenue covers only about half the annual $500,000 budget. Membership fees and fundraising efforts are expected to cover the rest. BlobFest is not a moneymaker.

Foote has been able to land state grants, and the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development designated the theater an “anchor building,” making it eligible for funds for streetscape development.

A community organizer and an experienced nonprofit fundraiser with a social work background, Foote moved to Phoenixville in 1987. When the theater went up for sale, she knew it couldn’t be lost.

Until she arrived in town, Foote had never heard of The Blob. “Everyone looked at me and asked what planet I was from,” she says.

The 10th annual BlobFest runs July 10-12. Last year, an estimated 3,000 people turned out for the 50th anniversary of the film’s release. Each year, they come from as far as California, Tennessee and Michigan. A full house of 650 enthusiasts typically runs screaming from the theater to recreate the famous scene from the film. There’s a movie-themed scream contest and a tinfoil hat contest. Saturday offers a vendor-oriented street fair—including the fire extinguisher parade—and there’s a costume contest on the Colonial stage. “The first year, we just did a few screenings—and we sold out,” Foote says.

Affordable and family-friendly, BlobFest fits the Colonial Theatre’s programming model. “It has a broad appeal,” says Foote. “It raises our visibility.”

Continued on page 3 …

The Blob and Beyond

Book of Blob:
A long-awaited self-published Blob book by Wes Shank called From Silicone to the Silver Screen: Memoirs of The Blob (1958) made its debut June 7 at Historic Yellow Springs, where the film studio that made The Blob was located. Released there at its annual Summerfest, the book is 120 pages and includes nearly 100 photos, 39 of which are in color. “Many behind the scenes photos have never been seen by the general public,” Shank says.

From Silicone to the Silver Screen is a collection of memoirs from various individuals that were involved in making the film, both cast and crew. Shank tracked down and interviewed as many surviving people as he could locate.

Included is a chapter about how Shank acquired the blob silicone in 1965, plus a touching letter from Jean Yeaworth, wife of Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr., the film’s director. Bart Sloane also discusses how he brought the blob silicone material to life through ingenious special effects in the days long before CGI or computer-generated effects.

From the Director’s Son: If a movie theater can make lasting memories, Kris Yeaworth (Irvin S. Yeaworth, III) is living proof. He grew up in Chester Springs, where his father, Shorty Yeaworth, made films for over 20 years, including The Blob.

Shorty was also the choir director at the First Presbyterian Church in Phoenixville, and Kris’ mother was the church organist. Many Saturday afternoons in the late ’50s and early ’60s, she would go to the church and practice the organ for Sunday worship and rehearse her accompaniment for the weekly choir anthem.

“She would drop us off at the Colonial Theatre while she practiced and did her shopping down the street at Jerry’s Market,” Kris recalls. “I spent many wonderful hours in the dark with the flickering light of the carbon arc projectors, seeing countless films as a preteen with my two brothers and two sisters. Usually, it was a double feature or cartoons, a short or serial, and then the feature.”

Occasionally, the Colonial would have a ticket drawing and, once, Kris’ number was called. He won a pair of six-shooter cap pistols with a leather holster. “I was so dumbfounded, my sister had to push me to go up on the stage to pick up the prize,” Kris says.

He also loved the candy machine in the lobby where, for a nickel (later a dime), he could buy Junior Mints, Black Crows, Pom Poms and, later, his first Milk Duds.

Shorty shot two feature films, with interior and exterior shots of the Colonial. The first, in 1953, was called Twice Convicted, which was later repackaged and called The Flaming Teen-Age. The second, of course, was The Blob.

Without doubt, some of Kris’ fondest childhood memories occurred at the Colonial, including the time he went to see Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds while sitting in the middle of four teenage girls, all of whom grabbed him when the tension warranted it.

“One year, I think it was 1958, we had a huge snowstorm on the first day of spring, and the power was off in our production complex in Chester Springs for more than three days,” Kris says. “My father and mother took me to the Colonial one night because they not only had electricity, they had heat! We saw Mario Lanza in the Seven Hills of Rome. To this day, I still mimic his singing Arrivederci Roma when I feel like adding an operatic/Italian vocal to a conversation.”

As an adult, he’s also sung at the Colonial about a dozen times, most recently as the opening act for The Bacon Brothers last October, but mostly during the ’70s, when a friend, Eric Knudsen, ran the theater and Kris sang regularly on Monday nights before the feature. He produced a concert there in 1977 that had three acts, with the Blue Yonder Band as the headliners, plus Keith Chapman (who was then the principal organist at Wanamaker’s with the world’s largest musical instrument, and a dear family friend).

In the Remaking: Jack H. Harris, president of Worldwide Entertainment Corp. in Beverly Hills, Calif., says he produced 30 films, “but none approach The Blob in iconic public acceptance.”

Currently, he’s in the throes of a remake as a stage musical. But 50-plus years ago, when he needed a theater location for a sequence during the Chester Springs-based production of the film, the Colonial was selected and, he says, made internationally famous in the process. “My many years in the industry as an acknowledged showman have never witnessed an equal to the thoroughness and enthusiasm generated by the BlobFest exploitation and execution,” Harris says of the resulting annual festival at the Colonial. “Audiences, the media, theater management and I look forward to each fest with great expectation.”

—J.F. Pirro

Our Best of the Main Line Elimination Ballot is open through February 22!