Warner Erie Theatre/Erie, PA

Buffalo News (New York)

May 2, 2010 Sunday
FINAL EDITION/ SPOTLIGHT; One tank trip; Pg. F12

Restored Warner picture palace a site to see
By Mark Sommer – NEWS STAFF REPORTER

DATELINE: ERIE, Pa.

Fans of Shea’s Performing Arts Center owe it to themselves to visit the Warner Theatre, which, like Shea’s, was the product of celebrated movie palace designers Rapp & Rapp of Chicago.

The Warner was built by Warner Bros. Studios during the Great Depression, at the steep cost of $1.5 million, a gem in this small city about 100 miles southwest of Buffalo.

With three of four restoration phases complete, the theater and former vaudeville house is a jaw-dropping spectacle, with an imposing sign heralding its name; a multicolored, sunburst marquee; and a lavish Art Deco, Egyptian Revival and French Imperial interior.

"This building is the last original Warner Brothers theater left intact in the country," said Barbara J. Hauck, who in October 2009 released, with photographer Art Becker and researcher Brian Sheridan, "A Picture Palace Transformed: How Erie’s Warner Theatre Survived a Changing World."

"It’s a little bit of a mishmash, but you have to understand picture palaces were for fantasy. I’ve given tours where there are people from Europe who were just agape at the space."

It has been that way since the downtown theater opened at 811 State St. "The most beautiful and most modern palace of amusement this side of Buffalo and Cleveland. A dream come true," proclaimed one Erie newspaper upon its April 10, 1931, opening.

Prepare to be transported when entering the theater’s gold-gilded Grand Lobby through five double sets of brass doors, and stepping onto the red, beige and black terrazzo floor.

Tapestries and French gold-backed mirrors draped in crushed velour line the walls, with three large glass chandeliers dangling from a three-story ceiling coated in gold and silver leaf, amid bas relief patterns and images of fish and pointy-beaked birds.

The choice of animal life is no accident.

"What the brothers Warner did was put a symbol of the city in which the theater stood in the ceiling. Those are symbols of Erie, because of the lake," Hauck said.

Other creatures, real and fantastic, are evident throughout the theater — notably gryphons. The mythological beasts, with the head of an eagle and body of a lion, are found in decorative arts dating back to 1500 B.C. and tie into the Egyptian motif, since that’s one of the countries gryphons are identified with.

"When I give tours with kids, I like to say that the building is full of faces and animals, because it is," Hauck said.

Like Shea’s, sumptuous design elements are everywhere the eye turns, such as an ornate black and gold Batchelder water fountain, as well as decorative tiles and original oil paintings from the late 1800s.

At the back of the lobby is a majestic staircase with bronze railings and an Art Deco carpet patterned with red, beige, gray and black. The sweeping staircase leads through a velour-draped marble archway to the mezzanine level.

Inside the 2,250-seat theater, rich floral tapestries, gilded gold and other palatial details partner well with the rich burgundy with gold tassels curtain stretching across the stage proscenium, the neat rows of still-new seats and the stunning domed ceiling.

It’s a lot to absorb — which was the effect Rapp & Rapp and other movie palace designers sought to create for working people not used to such splendor.

"Watch the eyes of the tired shop girl moving noiselessly over the carpets in satisfaction, as she walks amid furnishings that once delighted the hearts of queens," said George Rapp, in one of many early theater clippings, original programs and memorabilia adorning the theater’s French Street entry.

"See the toil-worn father whose dreams have never come true, and look inside his heart as he finds strength and rest within the theater. And you’ll have the answer as to why motion-picture palaces are so palatial."

Warner Bros. acquired hundreds of chain theaters, but built less than a dozen from the ground up. Just four remain in use. All of those opened in 1931 and all, except for the Erie theater, were closed for an extended period of time. The others are in Morgantown, W.V., Torrington, Conn. and Youngstown, Ohio.

The Warner Theatre, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is used frequently as a performing arts center. It is home to the Erie Philharmonic Orchestra, Erie Broadway Series, Erie Civic Music Association and Lake Erie Ballet. There are also rock and country concerts, traveling dance productions, weddings, proms and graduations.

"It’s an emotional magnet for Erie," said Hauck, who until recently was executive director of Warner Theatre Preservation Trust, which raises restoration funds.

Although the theater retains its early carbon-arc motion-picture projectors, it hasn’t shown movies for years.

Like Shea’s, the Erie movie palace nearly fell victim to the wrecking ball, until Mayor Louis Tullio envisioned it in the mid-1970s as part of a regional civic center complex of sports, arts and entertainment. The city bought the theater as a linchpin for downtown revitalization.

Since then, state and local funds have been used to restore the marquee; clean, repaint and refinish interior surfaces; replicate and replace draperies, tapestries and carpeting; install new seats; provide seating for those with physical disabilities and improve women’s bathrooms.

This year, it’s hoped $11 million will be provided in the state budget to finish revamping the Warner. Most of the funds, along with $3.5 million raised locally, will be used to expand the stage to allow for larger traveling Broadway productions, build a new stage house and dressing rooms, and install new heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems.

If that happens, the theater could go dark for an extended period of time. For now, there’s still plenty of time to visit the theater. For a list of upcoming presentations, go to www.erie-events.com.

While in Erie:

Splash Lagoon Water Park Resort, 8091 Peach St. The family-fun indoor water park complex features lots of fun slides, and includes a laser tag site and arcade.

Jerry Uht Ballpark, 110 E. 10th St. The comfy confines — just 6,000 seats — is the baseball home of the Erie SeaWolves, a Double A minor league affiliate of the Detroit Tigers.

Louis J. Tullio Arena, 809 French St. With just under 8,000 seats, the small arena has allowed audiences to get closer views of performers like Cher and Elton John. It’s also home to the ErieBayHawks of the National Basketball Association’s Development League, the Erie Storm of the American Indoor Football Association and the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey Association.

Presque Isle State Park, off Route 832. The 3,200-acre sandy peninsula with a 75-foot observation tower provides a range of outdoor recreation and a spot to view migrating birds.

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  1. THS visited this theater on Conclave 1999 and we were so very impressed with the enthusiasm of the staff and volunteers. It’s GREAT to see them still moving forward!

  2. THS visited this theater on Conclave 1999 and we were so very impressed with the enthusiasm of the staff and volunteers. It’s GREAT to see them still moving forward!

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