A Second Century of DreamsDec 01, 2021 09:00AM ● By Karey Solomon
The marquee on the outside hints at only part of the magic. It lures customers inside, promising enchantment—then delivers even more.
When Wellsboro’s Arcadia opened in 1921, moving pictures were a novelty. Owners Irvin Focht and Leon Klock took a risk building a 900-seat auditorium, hoping the seats they sold for fifteen and twenty-five cents would repay their investment.
Fortunately, the audiences they hoped for arrived.
Back then, operating a movie theater meant more than creating a welcoming space with plush seats and a working projector. Movies were silent, dramatized with the accompaniment of an organ, a piano, sometimes even a small orchestra. Musical accompaniment, carefully coordinated with the onscreen action, supplied some of the drama dialog later provided. The theater’s name, Arcadia, suggested a place of innocent, rustic pleasures, possibly to reassure early patrons, riveted to the shenanigans unfolding in front of their eyes, that attending a movie could only be good, clean fun.
The opening movie, The Old Nest, was an eight-reel movie, meaning it was about eighty-eight minutes long, requiring the projectionist to nimbly switch between two projectors, to keep the action going, rethreading one while the other ran and seamlessly accomplishing the changeover every ten or eleven minutes.
That movie, once immortalized on celluloid, a notoriously flammable early plastic which also easily degrades, might now be permanently lost. No matter—its place in the hearts of its audiences was quickly replaced by other Hollywood productions. In cinema’s golden age, before the advent of television, moviegoers faithfully returned, sometimes weekly, to take in the newest dramatic release—and these came thick and fast. Audiences giggled, gasped, and sighed as they followed the vicissitudes of the characters, got enjoyably scared at horror movies, fell in love with actors they followed on the screen and in movie magazines. They came to forget their troubles and be taken out of lives that included the stresses of the Depression, war, and personal and global threats.
They still do.
“People want to come together in a theater or concert and have that moment of community over a shared event,” says Peter Davis, general manager of the Arcadia. “Meet up with friends, go on a date, get out of the house, laugh together, and cry together. There’s something about that, especially to come together and forget about all the craziness.”
The experience became more compelling—and the era of the in-house orchestra ended—when films including sound, known as talkies, arrived in 1929. The Arcadia was one of the first theaters north of the Mason-Dixon line to begin showing this new sort of movie.
In the 1930s, when owner/manager Larry Wooden began screening films on Sundays, some town residents were concerned. Then a fire damaged part of the theater, a common hazard when the heat of an incandescent projection bulb made contact with celluloid film, causing the Sunday nay-sayers to deem this accident a heavenly response to Sunday showings, summarily discontinued for several years thereafter. Later, when the rise of television, and later the availability of movies on video, challenged the viability of movie theaters across the country, audiences declined and many worried an era had concluded.
But the Arcadia kept going.
In 1987, the theater was purchased by the Wellsboro Hotel Company, owner of the historic Penn Wells Hotel and Lodge. In 1996 and 1997, it was completely renovated to celebrate its seventy-fifth year, reopening in March 1997 as a state-of-the-art four-screen movie house. The original stage was extended over the former orchestra pit to make that part of the theatre more versatile for live theatrical performances. The building was extended over an adjacent property, then divided into four performance spaces. Complying with modern code and ADA requirements, adding soundproofing, and installing more spacious seats—people got larger over the past century—meant losing more than 200 seats, but the new ones are comfortable and upholstered. Once a dark celestial blue with silver accents, ornate plaster work and other accoutrements of luxury, later a generic beige as the result of a previous renovation, the interior walls of today’s Arcadia are painted “Arcadia Green” with burgundy accents. Many of the original Art Deco details were repaired and restored.
The theater began offering private screenings as well as the occasional stage performance and special “dinner-and-a-movie” nights. “As a single screen theater, it was feeling a little old,” says movie buff Clare Ritter, a frequent patron. “Now it feels nostalgic as well as modern. It’s more intimate than many modern movie theaters and it has such amazing history.”
Although the Arcadia, like most theaters, had to close its doors for some time during the pandemic, “The main thing is how vital a movie theater is to a downtown in a small town,” Peter says. “Movies are still one of the only things happening at night. We’re there every night.” And when movie patrons go out to eat or to a bar in conjunction with a visit to the Arcadia, there’s a synergistic benefit felt by many area establishments.
The immersive experience of the big screen with surround sound, and an absence of other distractions remains unlike any other. Of course, so is movie popcorn. “It’s not like your couch,” Peter says. “Sitting at home is just not the same.”
As the pandemic recedes, he’s hoping people will again have the fun of going out to the movies they once took for granted. Tickets and gift cards can be purchased online at arcadiawellsboro.com or call (570) 724-4947 or in person. Peter says patrons can still see first-run movies, “Pretty much the first weekend they come out.” With admission at $8.50 for adults and $6.50 for kids, “We’re trying to keep it affordable. We’re hoping people are rediscovering going out to the movies.”