Charleston Daily Mail (West Virginia)
Monday September 6, 2010
NEWS; Pg. P11A
Legendary theater has final showing;
Warner in Morgantown closes after 79 years
By EVELYN RYAN, THE DOMINION POST
MORGANTOWN – In 1931, the Warner Theatre opened in downtown Morgantown with a showing of "The Millionaire" with George Arliss, a comedy about a well-to-do businessman who retires, then buys a service station on the sly to relieve his boredom.
Sunday, the Warner showed its last screenings of films – a mixture of comedy, drama and documentaries.
The Warner began with the largest screen in the tri-state region, outside of Pittsburgh, with a balcony as well as a main-floor seating area. In the 1970s, it was turned into three theaters.
Susan Riddle, COO of Round Table Corp., the theater’s owner, said all three theaters were operating for the last time Sunday.
When the last filmgoer left Sunday, the Warner’s door was locked. Riddle said the company plans to maintain the Art Deco theater. The three businesses in the front of the building are not affected by the theater’s closing, she said.
The theater is closing, she said, because it has become too expensive to compete with the 12-screen complexes at Morgantown Mall and University Town Centre.
"I remember seeing ‘Gone With the Wind’ in 1939," recalls James McCartney, 90, of Morgantown. "I was in college here, and I went to see it at the Warner Theatre.
"It had just one big screen and a balcony. The theater was filled. (The movie) had an intermission – it was 3 1/2 hours – and we all walked out in the hall and got some popcorn and a soft drink."
Admission was only 15 cents for early Sunday showings, and 25 cents later in the day.
"For ‘Gone With the Wind,’ I paid 50 or 75 cents to see it, I can’t recall – that was a lot of money in 1939," he said.
"I have great memories of the Warner. It was a beautiful theater. They always had the marquee filled with the latest movies."
The Warner holds different memories for Morgantown attorney Andrew G. "Andy" Fusco. His father, the late Albert G. "Al" Fusco, was the theater’s manager from 1961-76.
"It was great for me and my friends," he said Thursday. "Every change of movie, I went. That was back when the Warner was a full-screen theater and a huge auditorium. The screen was the largest of any in the tri-state area, except for the Warner in Pittsburgh."
He wasn’t always watching the latest films.
"I can remember in spring 1965, the Warner was on national release for ‘The Sound of Music.’ What that meant was that they would get films at the same time all major cities did," he said.
"In order to do so, they had to keep it for at least 10 weeks, which was unheard of in Morgantown, and do it on a reserved-seat basis. Each seat had to be numbered to match the tickets."
But the seats weren’t numbered. So at midnight on a Friday night, Fusco and a friend, armed with Magic Markers, went through the theater placing a number on the wooden armrest of each seat.
"My best recollection was, there (were) 1,100 seats. The theater was open from noon until midnight, and in the morning the cleaning folks were there. We had to do it after hours."
It took several days to do the main theater and balcony, he said.
In 2001, Fusco’s father reminisced about the Warner with The Dominion
Post columnist Norm Julian. Al Fusco died in 2007 at the age of 84.
"Sometimes the line would be three or four across and stretch around the corner (of High and Pleasant streets) down to the old Hav-a-Lunch Restaurant," Al recalled.
Al said the biggest day at the Warner probably was March 20, 1964, with the national premiere of "The Incredible Mr. Limpet," a live-action animated comedy featuring actor Don Knotts, complete with a red carpet.
"The fire department brought the big flood lights out front," he said.
The Warner Theatre opened to moviegoers on June 12, 1931, according to The Dominion Post archives. It was built on property formerly occupied by the home of Dr. David H. Courtney. It was built as a movie house by Warner Brothers Films at a cost of $400,000.
In 1998, Carmike Cinemas, which leased the movie house, closed the theater effective Aug. 20. The reason given at the time was because the Warner was not making enough money for the Georgia-based movie chain.
On Feb. 23, 2001, Cinemagic, a Pittsburgh-based company, reopened the Warner after extensive renovations.
The refurbished facility offers 691 seats in the three cine mas, each featuring new screens, new seating and new sound.
In 2004, RoundTable Corp. acquired the theater and installed a new air-conditioning and heating system, new projection equipment and Surround Sound, finishing off with a new coat of paint, restoring the original look with burgundy, gold, white and black.
The final showings at the Warner Theatre Sunday were:
-"The Kids Are All Right," a comedy/ drama about children of lesbian parents who locate their biological father.
-"Dinner for Schmucks," a comedy starring Steve Carell about two friends and an unlikely dinner.
-And two documentaries in the third theater. "Exit Through The Gift Shop," the story of a French filmmaker’s effort to locate Banksy, a graffiti artist who protects his anonymity. And "Wild, Wonderful Whites of West Virginia," a year in the life of the family of Jesco White, star of the cult classic documentary "Dancing Outlaw."
THE DOMINION POST
The Warner Theater opened in 1931 in Morgantown. In the 1970s, it was converted into three theaters.
The Warner Theatre closed its doors after its last show Sunday night.