First Posted: 9/13/2013
The curtain may rise once again.
Nearly 30 years after the American Theater on North Main Street was torn down and replaced with a parking lot, Pittston officials are planning a new theater as part of the downtown renaissance, said Michael Lombardo, a member of the city’s redevelopment authority.
Second run films, art films, small musical productions, stand up comedy acts and tribute bands could be part of the facility’s bookings. The theater could even be rented out for events or parties.
The planned New American Theater would seat 260 people and would be built on the empty lot between Virginia Despirito Hair Fashions and Advanced Arms gun shop. The lot is the former home of the Valley Cat Rescue at 79 S. Main St., which was demolished in 2011.
Lombardo said plans for the new theater have been drawn up and the authority voted unanimously last week to move forward and order architectural and engineering blueprints.
“This is a serious first step and now we’re headed to a full blueprint stage,” Lombardo said. Architect Paul Lewis of Williams Kinsman and Lewis in Wilkes-Barre produced the plans.
Lombardo stressed it is going to be a private partnership with no debt. He said government grants may be used to assist the project, but no loans will be obtained by the authority or the city.
“I don’t think in the next 10 years, there will be these magical financial bullets from the federal or state government,” he said. “We’re going to have to rely on private funding.”
He pictures people going to dinner in a downtown restaurant then a movie or a show at the theater. He’d like to see the theater obtain a liquor license.
The original American Theater opened on North Main Street in June of 1924 and had one screen, a stage and more than 1,000 seats.
This was the largest theater in the Pittston area and was located in the main business area between the Water Street and Fort Jenkins bridges. Another smaller theater, the Roman, was on South Main Street.
The American hosted vaudeville shows, big band music concerts and movies and it was in operation until the early 1980s. It was owned by the Comerford family, who also owned a drive-in on State Route 315 and theaters in Wilkes-Barre and Scranton.
After it closed, the building sat empty until it was demolished for a Rite-Aid drug store and parking lot.
John Dziak, a local historian, said the American Theater was a very popular part of Pittston’s past.
“If you ask any older person from Pittston, everyone would remember the American,” Dziak said. “A lot of people met their future spouses at the American.”
That’s where Lombardo met his wife, Susan. “I remember we were seeing a movie, The Prophecy,” he said. He said many teens went to the double features on Friday night for $2, then they would head to Demuro’s Pizza or Burger King.
Dziak, a graduate of St. John’s High School, said his school was once released early so everyone could go downtown and watch “Ben Hur” in 1960.
Lombardo often says anecdotally that a primary reason he ran for mayor was the city tore down the American.
“There are things worth saving and there are things that aren’t worth saving and there are things that worth saving that aren’t possible to save,” Lombardo said. “I don’t believe the theater wasn’t possible to save.”
He said there was a different mentality 30 to 40 years ago.
“For a time in the ’70s and ’80s, in downtown development, I think our reaction was we have something new coming so we can tear down the old,” he said.
But he said attitudes have changed.
“It was an asset we lost and it brings us to this story today,” he said. “It’s worth taking a look at again. I think it’s going to become a reality because the authority is dedicating this space and the mayor and members of council are committed to making this happen.”
Lombardo said it may take creative ways to fund the theater, but he’s confident it will be built. He’s expecting the cost to be between $750,000 and $1 million.
“It won’t be gilded glitzy like the American,” he said. “It will be simple and artsy. And continue the art theme we’re bringing into the downtown.”