|Coudersport Theatre: Symbol of Yesteryear
In an era when small-town movie theatres have all but disappeared from the American landscape, the Coudersport Theatre continues to
provide entertainment to hundreds of local residents and visitors each week.
The forerunner of the Coudersport Theatre was a brick livery stable built on the north side of First Street, directly behind the old Citizen's Safe
Deposit & Trust Company building, in the wake of an 1880 fire that destroyed much of Coudersport's business district. During a 33-year
period, this combination roller rink, lecture room, and "opera house" was known under many names: The Rink, The Arcade Theatre, The
Casino, Dreamland, and the Star Theatre.
Just after the turn of the century, the West Street Theatre opened at 7 North West Street, complete with 755 seats in three levels.
A competing theatre opened at 35 South Main Street, Which was until recently Take Two Video. There was also a primitive movie house on
the second floor of 215 North Main Street, where Acker & Larsen law offices are now located. Then came the Grand Theatre, which opened
in 1912 at the site of what is now the extended portion of Buchanan Brothers Pharmacy, across First Street from the current Coudersport
Construction of today's theatre was completed in December of 1922 at a cost of about $25,000. By this time, major motion picture
companies had begun to produce films with sophisticated subjects, which gradually succeeded in dispelling the notion that movies were a
vulgar means of entertainment, a notion that prevailed simply because early cinema had been associated with fairgrounds and burlesque
halls. Movie producers were now offering films that stressed the sanctity of home and family, that embraced Christian values, and that were
The Coudersport Theatre opened its doors on Tuesday evening, January 16, 1923, with a showing of "A Wise Fool." During the earliest
years, Gertrude Jordan was the pianist. The blind pianist, Spic Holland, frequently played at the theatre to accompany the silent films. Minstrel
shows and other live performers were often featured at this new entertainment house.
E. C. Clawson of Jamestown, N.Y. purchased the theatre in April 1928 and proceeded to bring in vaudeville acts and other popular
performers. Clawson owned a calliope and would play it automatically as he drove it around town, powered by a little gas engine. As he
drove, he handed out handbills to advertise the movies.
Clawson made many improvements to the theatre, from new carpeting to a redecorated interior with a Spanish motif. He also replaced the
seats and added the marquee, which remains to this day.
Accompanying Clawson to Coudersport was "Popcorn Joe" Nasto, who sold popcorn, candy and soft drinks. According to old timers, he
often blew the smell of popcorn into the theatre through a hole in the wall to tempt movie-goers to visit the snack bar. When Clawson acquired
the theatre, movies were silent films. He had a pipe organ installed, upon which George Wall, also of Jamestown, played accompaniments
from the sheet music included with the films which were shipped to the Coudersport Theatre.
In June 1930, with great fanfare, Clawson announced that he acquired the necessary sound equipment to accommodate "Talkies" and a new
era had arrived.
In 1934, the Coudersport Theatre was sold to Charles Fickinger of Ford City for $85,000. During the next 17 years, live performances were
less frequent and "Talkies" were featured on a regular basis. There were occasional appearances by pit orchestras, including one which
featured Joe Heimel and Roy Heimel, on clarinet and cornet, respectively.
New Standards of excellence were being achieved in Hollywood with the production of "Mutiny On The Bounty" and "Gone With The Wind."
Consequently, movie-going became a habitual activity. In Coudersport, it was not unusual for people to stand in long lines to buy tickets. A
popular marketing ploy of the Fickinger era was "Bank Night." Everyone who attended had his name entered in a huge drum for smaller
prizes and a big jackpot prize. The names were never removed, so they accumulated from week to week, but the jackpot was only awarded if
the person whose name was drawn was present on that particular night. If not, the jackpot would increase.
A competing theatre, the Sylvan Theatre, opened in 1940, at the site of today's Ace Hardware. It was only a matter of weeks before Fickinger
bought the rival Sylvan Theatre. A year later, the Sylvan was closed forever.
In 1941, movie star Joan Crawford visited Coudersport on the same night her film "A Woman's Face" was showing at the Coudersport
Theatre. She bought a pair of shoes at McNary's Shoe Store and spent a night at the hotel Crittenden.
The following year, a flood ravaged much of Coudersport. Waters from the Allegheny ruined the organ and destroyed much of the theatre's
On July 28, 1951, Fickinger sold the Coudersport Theatre to John Rigas, described by The Potter Enterprise as "a 26-year-old Wellsville,
N.Y., man, the son of a Wellsville restaurant owner. This is his first business venture."
In 1952, Rigas installed new projection lenses, new sound equipment, a new movie screen that was clearer and easier on the eyes, and new
theatre seats. During the first year Rigas owned the theatre, he commuted to Coudersport from his home in Wellsville. He also held down an
engineering job at Sylvania's corporate headquarters in Emporium. On those nights when the roads were snow-covered or icy, the new owner
slept on a bunk at the theatre.
Through the next 25 years, the theatre went through significant changes. With the advent of Cinemascope, a wider screen was installed in
1962 and yet another new screen was installed in 2002. The theatre balcony was closed in 1975 and has since been removed. A system of
fully automated film projectors was installed in 1981, and a stereo system was added in 1983. Improvements continue.
In 1981, a new foundation for the Coudersport theatre was laid and the relatively small, dark, and damp basement was replaced with a wide
and more functional area.
When Rigas bought the theatre, there were movie houses in Galeton, Shinglehouse, Austin, Port Allegany, Smethport, and Emporium. These
have all since closed. A drive-in theatre that opened in Roulette in 1957 has also been closed for many years. (Another theatre in Galeton
has opened recently.)
Up to the mid- 1960's the Coudersport Theatre was open every weekday evening, presenting double features and matinees every weekend.
For many years after that, the theatre featured motion pictures on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights only. Today, the theatre features
motion pictures Friday through Monday nights.
Much has changed since the Coudersport Theatre became the talk of the town more than three-quarters of a century ago.
Something that hasn't changed is the theatre curtain, installed April 9, 1928. It depicts the legendary Spanish knight Amadis de Gaula on the
left, and Spanish dancers beneath the mystic blossoms of a tree on the right. The two sides are a deliberate portrayal of contrasting (perhaps
conflicting) dramatic and philosophical ideals, both of which need to be reconciled in every culture in every generation.
Despite pressures to close down this local institution, John Rigas has insisted on keeping the Coudersport Theatre operating week after
week as a service to the community and a symbol of days gone by.
By Paul W. Heimel & Robert B.Merten