In 1912, Arizona was admitted as the 48th state, the Titanic sank in the freezing Atlantic, and Robert Scott conquered the South Pole. Woodrow Wilson won the presidency in a landslide and the Boston Red Sox edged out the New York Giants in extra innings to win the World Series.
But in Boyertown, a little theater named the Lyric opened its doors for the first time on a cold Saturday evening. On December 7th 1912, patrons lined up to see “The Girl from the Country” and other “shorts” of the day. Films at that time were shown in black and white and were considered “silent,” since audio had not yet been invented. Show prices were 5 cents for children, 10 cents for adults, and the theater was immediately popular with busloads arriving from nearby towns to share in the entertainment experience.
The style of the Lyric theater was considered Spanish Colonial, quite a detour from the more traditional homes lining Reading Avenue. The building made quite an aesthetic statement next to the staid St. John’s Lutheran church, which had been built 38 years earlier with a very traditional appeal. The theater was certainly the newcomer on the block in more ways than one.
Yet the Lyric lent style and sophistication to a town desperate for enjoyment. Only four years earlier the town had been rocked by tragedy when the Rhoads Opera House had been destroyed by fire, and the loss of 170 residents was still very fresh on the minds and hearts of Boyertonians at the time.
The Lyric was designed with the Rhoads Opera House fire in mind, and the theater was described in the local Boyertown Democrat as being “the most modern and safest plan of theatre yet passed upon by state authorities.” Plans had called for an absolute fireproof structure as near as possible, along with doors opening outward.
The theater seated 400 and was also used for local talent shows, educational lectures, war bond rallies, and more. History states that the theatre was open 7 days per week, however, the Sunday Blue Laws were in effect at that time, so it is unclear whether it was open 6 days or 7 days per week. The theater was built by a group of prominent businessmen: George W. Unger, Oliver W. Sabold, Newton B. Erb and J. William Shaefffer, with a vision for the future of Boyertown. The Lyric had become the hub of community activity.
In the fall of 1930, sound came to the Lyric theatre, when a state-of-the-art Vita Phone system was installed. In 1932, the theater was closed briefly for what was considered extensive renovations for the time. This included an addition of 14 feet to the rear wall, replacing the original stage with a much smaller one, and the adding of approximately 100 seats. Rest rooms were added and the interior was refurbished in preparation for the later installation of an air-cooling system.
In 1934, ownership changed hands when George Kline, manager of the George Bennethum Theatre chain of Philadelphia, bought the theater and renamed it the State. Shortly after the purchase, Kline and his son, Jack, again temporarily closed the theater for further renovations.
A 1934 Boyertown Times article described Kline as expending “thousands of dollars to give this community a show place that is second to none in the state for a town of this size.” Kline hired well known theater architect David Supowitz to make renovations, changing the theater's style from Spanish Colonial to Art Deco. Renovations included giving the theater a “metropolitan air” by adding a three-sided neon marquee, updated sound equipment, and new art deco murals on the sidewalls of the auditorium. Out of the 22 known theaters Supowitz designed, only 2 remain in operation, the State being one of them. Jack Kline would manage the theater for the next 40 years.
While the theater continued to thrive throughout the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s under Kline’s ownership, historical records indicate that sales and attendance were impacted by the growing modernity of life, including Victrolas, gramophones, radio and then the onset of television, plus the exodus of many to the growing suburbs. Wartime also had its affects. In the late 1950’s, the theater was once again sold, this time to Clark & Greenberg Theaters of Philadelphia. The theater was modernized and redecorated, and in line with the style of the time, the murals – deemed outdated and in need of updating – were covered, and would remain so for the next two decades. Other changes the theater would see at that time were a new lobby and a relocated box office. New seats were also installed.
It wasn’t until 1972 when the theater again changed hands, being purchased by the Angstadt & Wolfe group of Northampton, Pennsylvania. The theater by then had begun showing feature-length movies at discounted prices, with ticket prices being advertised as $1.00 per show.
It was in 1984, when an effort was made to repair a tear in the stretch damask that covered the walls, that a manager discovered the priceless murals hidden beneath. An immediate examination was undertaken, and the murals were found to be of historical significance. Immediate restoration work was begun which involved, among other things, attaching wooden trim to frame the murals and to “restore the glory of the Art Deco for the enjoyment of patrons,” according to a local newspaper item.
In 1987, upon learning that the State was again up for sale, local businessman and theater buff Robert Ritner purchased the theater. Ritner spent six weeks refurbishing the interior, painting, replacing broken seats and installing a new concession stand. Ritner also modified the marquee allowing movie titles to be displayed on each end, and on November 20, 1987 the theater was reopened as Ritner’s State Theatre. First on the bill that night was the movie “La Bamba”, billed as “a celebration of 1950s rock and roll,” and it featured the life story of the late singing star Ritchie Valens. According to local press, Ritner’s State Theater was an immediate success.
In late October 2008, the theater was purchased by Boyertown residents Dawn & Kevin Rhude. The Rhudes, renaming the theater the "State Theatre of Boyertown" had a vision to transform the theatre into a "Theatre of the Arts". This would include continuing to run feature movies, but to also add live performances such as theatrical plays, dance performances, music productions and community events. Some cosmetic changes were made to give the theater a more Victorian atmosphere. The building continues to undergo structural and operational upgrades and repairs in order to restore its integrity. In October 2009, a 12' x 22' stage was added to the existing stage, in order to allow the venue to be more versatile. Several live performances have been held such as a battle of the bands, live plays, dance performances, comedians, and more. The State Theatre of Boyertown continues to be a movie theatre and also shows classic films. As active members of Building A Better Boyertown, the Rhudes continually partner with other area business owners in promoting local events and activities, as well as participating.
The State Theatre of Boyertown strives to strengthen the area’s cultural and artistic community through drama, dance, music, and motion picture presentation. The State Theatre of Boyertown also boasts being among the oldest theaters in continuous operation in the country, since its opening in 1912, closing only for renovations and change of ownership.
Printed by permission of author Lynn Gladieux,
and contributors Betty Burdan and Dawn Haas Rhude
" You're going to Love the Arts in Boyertown! "