The Eagle Theatre: The Story of a Montgomery Landmark
MONTGOMERY – On November 13, 1941, citizens of Montgomery were delighted to pick up their weekly copy of the Montgomery Mirror to learn that a movie theatre was coming to town. It was going to be located on North Main Street in a building that had at one time been The Lyceum Theatre, which featured plays presented by traveling theatre companies. After the Lyceum closed the building became The Ideal Upholstered Furniture Company.
Because of its proximity to Bald Eagle Mountain, it was to be called The Eagle Theatre. It was the newest offering of The Mid-State Theatres chain that was based in Clearfield and Howard “H.J.” Thompson was its president. Mid-State Theatres had opened ten other movie houses including The Watson in Watsontown. The paper announced that extensive renovations would be taking place and it would “be modern in every respect.”
Townsfolk were offered an idea of what it would be like as progress was reported in the February 19, 1942 edition of the Montgomery Mirror. The auditorium would be 33×114 feet, and “A new heating system has been installed as well as an emergency lighting system while, too, it is being air-conditioned for summer months. The air-cushioned seats together with the heavy carpet in rich hues have arrived and will be placed in the near future . . . a decorator will be here within the next few weeks to plan the drapes and decorations . . .” The article went on to say that, “A modern dairy lunch will be operated in a 50×20 foot addition to the theatre where will be found a soda fountain and booths for lunch service.” It would eventually come to be known as Groom’s Dairy.
According to Joan Wheal Blank’s ‘Around Montgomery Borough, 1940-1990’, when The Eagle Theatre first opened its doors in May of 1942, it was originally run by William and Jane Sherkel and admission was eleven cents. The ticket cost ten cents, an additional penny was charged for war tax.
Eventually the theatre was purchased by Robert W. Thompson, the nephew of H.J. Thompson who was president of the company that first established the theatre. Robert Thompson’s daughter, Roberta Cromer, recalled that her father had the option of purchasing The Eagle Theatre or The Watson. One of Thompson’s other daughters, Helena Worsley, couldn’t remember the exact year the family bought the theatre, but she could remember the moment she first saw it as a small child. The neon marquee and the lobby “felt very grand” and she enjoyed getting to live in the apartment above the theatre. For the Thompsons, running the theatre was a family endeavor. Robert ran the projector and his wife Joan was the ticket taker. Worsley recalled that her dad always wore a suit, her mother wore a nice dress, and the Thompson kids were dressed up as well. She recalled that she and her sisters wore, “pretty dresses with black patent leather shoes and ruffled socks.” As a teenager, Helena would run the candy counter.
Worsley warmly recalled the Eagle’s heyday. The 500-seat theatre was packed on the weekends. “Everyone was there on Friday and Saturday nights. We were mobbed with people, it was popular.”
In the days before television, going to the movies was a big event. Sometimes travelling vaudeville acts would entertain before the film. Worsley remembered that she and her siblings had been “in total awe” one night when the entertainment was provided by their father and his father, Francis. Many years before, they had a roller skating act and they decided to dust off their skates once more. The girls were shocked to see them do an array of tricks, but watching them perform back flips on roller skates seemed to impress them most of all.
Vaudeville acts may not have been standard before every feature, but a cartoon was. In addition to new movies, some Hollywood classics were such hits that the studios would re-release them years after their original run. Worsley said that Gone With the Wind and Ben-Hur were so popular that people would return to the theatre multiple times to enjoy them. She also said that during World War I,I ten-minute newsreels ran after the feature and were an important source of news about the war.
In addition to the evening shows, matinees drew crowds as well. The Three Stooges, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Gene Autry, and The Lone Ranger were some of the most beloved serials to be shown, but The Eagle Theatre drew huge matinee crowds for another reason. The Thompson family also owned an appliance store in the lower level of the building, and during downtime on matinee days Worsley and her father would hold drawings for brand new appliances. She recalled that on those days, “every seat was taken.”
Despite the glitz and glamour of Hollywood coming to life on the big screen, some people did occasionally get into mischief at The Eagle Theatre. Worsley recalls that the theatre was a popular place for teenagers to “make out,” but she was quick to note that it was a much more innocent time, so “making out” was a boy “putting his arm around the girl, and having a kiss or two.” Her mother Joan wasn’t happy about it, so she would keep her eye out and when she found a young couple “making out” she would shine a flashlight on them to make them stop. Worsley recalls that her mother’s method was effective. “You had to watch your reputation back then. In a small town everyone knew everyone.”
Cromer remembered that in later years when adult tickets were raised from fifty to sixty cents and children’s tickets from twenty-five to thirty cents, people were upset. However, not every customer was stingy with their money. She recalls that one time during a showing of The Absent-Minded Professor some teenagers began throwing coins in the air for the fun of watching the light from the projector shine on them. She thought it was funny at the time, but was thrilled when the teenagers had no interest in reclaiming their money after the show. As a child she helped to clean up the theatre afterwards and got to keep the money. She also recalled that once during a film that featured Chubby Checker doing “The Twist”, teenage girls were so enthralled with the latest dance craze that they jumped up out of their seats and ran to the lobby to try it themselves.
The sisters recalled that The Eagle Theatre closed around 1960. Worsley said, “Drive-Ins pretty much destroyed small town movie theatres.” She recalled that Drive-Ins provided teenagers with more opportunity to “make out” and that people could hide their friends in the trunk of a car to get in for free. She recalls that it was, “really sad when it closed. But it didn’t make sense to keep it open.”