Filed Under Butler

Penn Theater

The last of Butler's downtown moviehouses

Today the Penn Cinemas is an abandoned building, a ruin that calls back to the time of bright marquee signs and silver screens. In the early 20th century, downtown Butler featured multiple grand theaters; today, only the Penn remains as an artifact of this era.


The Paramount Theater's Service Corp., based out of Altoona, constructed Penn Cinemas in 1938. New York architect James E. Casale designed the movie house in the Art Deco style. The Art Deco movement began in the 1920s; it was one of the cultural trends that arose from the aftermath of World War I and lingered in art and architecture until after World War II.


The Penn Cinemas opened with “Girl of the Golden West,” an MGM film set in the American frontier about a pioneer girl who falls in love with an outlaw. The film later inspired an Italian Opera. The theater seated 1,100 people and used state-of-the-art air conditioning that involved blowing air across cool well water. The movies were shown over a vaudevillian stage, which is still present in the theater. In the 1960s Penn Cinemas added a small black box theater upstairs, known as The Bantam, which remains there today.


In May of 1991, the Penn Cinemas closed its doors. Butler’s retail economy, previously focused on Main Street, moved to outlying shopping centers. The theater was sold in 2001 but reopened briefly for live music and other events. Plans for necessary renovation and restoration grew expensive, and the theater closed again.


The exterior of the Penn changed several times throughout its history, and is now significantly decayed. However, the interior retains many of its original features. Beneath several layers of paint, the old theater revealed Greco-Roman murals, a quintessential feature of Art Deco design. The terrazzo floors remain intact, as does a large spiral staircase.


In November 2022, Butler native Bryan Frenchak purchased the property, and announced plans to renovate the theater as a multi-purpose venue in downtown, while still retaining its historic and romantic appeal to lovers of movies and architecture.

Images

Penn Theater Kids line up at the Penn Theater box office for a matinee show. Source: Courtesy of Butler County Historical Society Date: c, 1950
Exterior of Penn Theater at night Date: c. 1938
Theater patrons line up outside the Penn Source: Courtesy of Butler County Historical Society Date: ca January 1942
Untitled Source: Courtesy of Butler County Historical Society
Untitled Source: Courtesy of Butler County Historical Society

Location

Metadata

Kevin Lukacs, “Penn Theater,” Butler County Historical, accessed May 21, 2024, https://butlerhistorical.org/items/show/11.