The downtown is changing – again.
Within the past year, mainstays Bartikowsky Jewelers and the Ramada Hotel closed their doors, and the buildings are being repurposed as college facilities.
Now another familiar business, Outlet Army and Navy, is holding its final sale. News stories say that the building in the second block of Wilkes-Barre’s South Main Street should find new life when annexed by a neighboring furniture company.
Truly, the only constant in urban life is change.
So here’s a little history question. Just a few doors down the street from Outlet Army and Navy there once stood a building so significant to the community that its demise in the mid-1950s brought a whole colorful era to an end. What was it?
OK – time’s up!
It was the Penn Theater, originally known as Poli’s Theater. With its mixture of movies and stage acts, the Penn was the last vestige of the community’s once-thriving old theater district.
That theater district began way back in 1859 when audiences flocked to tiny Chahoon Hall, on West Market Street. In succeeding decades, newer and larger venues arose, including the Music Hall, on West Market at North River.
So it was that when entrepreneur Sylvester Z. Poli opened his sparkling new house in October of 1908 with a bill that included the acrobats “Bobkar’s Arabs,” Wilkes-Barre was already a good theater town, with live entertainment galore.
Across South Main from Polil’s was the upscale Nesbitt. A few doors down from that house was the Luzerne (later the Irving), which in years to come would spark police raids over its burlesque shows.
On South Franklin, near West Market, was the Grand Opera House, offering a steady diet of the best-known plays and musical shows of the day – and, yes, occasionally an actual opera.
In a preview of things to come, little movie houses known as “nickelodeons” were springing up all over the downtown. But for prestige they lagged far behind the stage theaters.
Poli’s was a mega-theater. It had an eye-catching arch and a huge vertical electric sign out front, and in time it sported a gigantic “vaudeville” marque on the side of the building.
Inside, a series of lobbies mainly in dark red, pink and gold led you to the auditorium, where according to old records more than 2,000 could be seated, on three levels. By comparison, the nearby Uno Theater, later the Orpheum, seated barely 800. About the only negative was that some of the downstairs seats at Poli’s had balcony pillars partially obstructing the view.
For most of its existence, Poli’s was best known as the area’s top vaudeville house. Patrons could see animal acts, musicians, comedians, singers, circus performers and magicians nightly. Among the famous who brought their acts to town were actor Edward Everett Horton, Jack Benny, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, W.C. Fields and cowboy star Roy Rogers.
Even when Poli’s became the Penn Theater in the mid-1930s and capitulated to the movie trend, it continued to offer some evenings and afternoons of live entertainment.
By mid-20th century, though, Hollywood’s Technicolor, wide-screen, stereo and 3-D epics – to say nothing of that new medium television — had drained away the stage audiences. Simultaneously, the big Paramount and Comerford theaters on Public Square were capturing the first-run, blockbuster films.
The Penn closed in 1955 and was torn down for a parking lot two years later. After a century, a grand era had ended.