If you walk down State Street in Newtown, Pa, you will find yourself surrounded by row houses, as well as coffee shops, ice cream parlors, book stores, and antique shops with various colored overhangs; balconies and benches along the street leave a place to appreciate the small town. Mixed in with these shops and homes is The Newtown Theatre, the oldest operating movie theater in the U.S.
Standing before a brick path between two wooden benches, in front of a set of red doors to a tall, brick building, I would not have guessed that this theater in suburban Newtown has been around since the early 1850s, according to the theater’s website. Since then, the theater has undergone some interior changes to meld with the entertainment it provides, but it has kept its history, and its old-time feel.
When I first open the door to the theater, there is about four feet of newly-installed, hardwood floor between me and a glass box. Dustin Trost, assistant manager of The Newtown Theatre for about a year and a half, stands
behind a counter between the glass box and a traditional popcorn machine. The atmosphere is the biggest difference between the oldest theater and theaters today. “You don’t get the usual movie-going experience. You walk in, you get everything in one place, tickets and concessions, and then you walk through a set of double doors into one theater,” Trost describes.
Hana Mondelblatt, a local who has seen numerous shows at the theater comments, “We like the old flair. This theater has a more warm and intimate feeling, and we love the popcorn machine.” The theater was not always used for shows. It first served as a town meeting hall in 1831. Newtown Hall, as it was known, showed its first movie in 1906, according to the theater’s website. Amos Farruggio, a licensed projectionist who loved movies, took responsibility for the hall when he rented it from the Newtown Community Welfare Council (NCWC), the theater’s website states. Farruggio kept it running from 1972 up until his death. Farruggio’s wife, Marjorie Farruggio, took over until her death in 2005. Trost says that Mrs. Farruggio “sold the building to The Welfare Board of Newtown to preserve it.” The NCWC now administers the theater, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer article.
In order to keep up with the digital age, the theater closed for “more than six months” and installed a state-of-the-art system. To mark its reopening in May 2014, the venue showed four classic movies including The Wizard of Oz, The Godfather, Singin’ in the Rain, and Casablanca. Ticket prices ranged from 23 cents to $1.70 per ticket, the prices that the “theater charged when each movie came out,” based on a Philadelphia Inquirer article.
The Newtown Theatre is a non-profit, and it collects donations through its website. “We have certain programs like the Newtown Arts Company, which runs plays here, and the proceeds from plays go to their scholarship program,” Trost describes. “The plays are the theater’s biggest income,” he states. There is a roll-down screen which rolls up when plays are showing.
The theater attracts out-of-towners from Center City Philadelphia, New Jersey, and New York. “We might be showing a movie that no one else is playing, so people come for that,” says Trost.
If you want to see a movie here, you will have few options. The theater shows one movie at a time, 4:30p.m. or 7p.m., seven days a week. Since options are limited, “We’re not going to charge an arm and a leg,” Trost explains for the low prices. The theater plays different genres of movies, from family films to independents. “We have the biggest surround sound system in the area,” Trost states. The community “raised more than $100,000” for the digital system, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer article.
After Trost goes into technical detail of the new, completely digital system, I take a look around.
I head up the stairs located less than 10 feet from the popcorn machine. I stand on the theater’s balcony, overlooking the seats and screen below me. “No other theater in the Philadelphia area has a balcony,” Trost reports.
I walk down into the lower theater, and stand between wooden seats without cup holders. “And these seats,” Trost informs as he touches one of 327 of them, “are from 1923.”
Needless to say, this place already fascinates me. The walls are decorated with original movie posters, such as Frankenstein from the late 1920s, and Meet Me in St. Louis from 1962.
“Of course, in a place with such history, are there any wacky stories?” I ask Trost.
He laughs. “We have a ghost, so it’s kind of haunted.” Trost continues, “I’ve seen the ghost, it’s a he, and he is a tall guy. He’s not a mean ghost, but he does make himself known.” Pointing to a door in front of a Dracula movie
poster, Trost indicates, “We had to put a door stop in there, because he’ll try to close the door–I’ve seen it kicked out.”
Trost has also seen him by the fire extinguisher, and walking to the ladies’ room. “I actually heard footsteps from the upstairs the other day,” Trost recalls.
Thirty percent of people ages 18 and over prefer going to a movie theater over other viewing sources, based on a USA Today survey conducted in 2012. As far as The Newtown Theatre continuing to entertain, “We’re not going anywhere,” Trost states.