Playing the Palace: Greensburg's Palace Theatre celebrates 90 years
February 26, 2016 12:00 AM
Manos Theatre, circa 1915 - 1930.
Rialto and Strand Theaters, West Otterman St., Greensburg. Circa 1920.
The Palace Theatre in Greensburg, Pa.
By M. Thomas / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Vaudeville was all the rage when the Manos Theater opened in Greensburg in 1926. This weekend the venerable entertainment space, rechristened The Palace Theatre in 1977, will celebrate its 90th anniversary with a pull-out-all-the-stops gala.
Entertainers will perform outside the theater as guests walk in on a red carpet. The Stage Right! Sensations will set the evening’s tone with a happy birthday medley sung on the Vermont marble staircase inside. Entertainment and food will be presented throughout the night.
“This is the second year we’ve involved a lot of the community talent,” said Dawna Saunders, party co-chairwoman. Some groups have participated in past years, such as Stage Right!, a Greensburg professional theater company and performing arts school, she said. But new organizations also have come on board.
Among groups to perform are Apple Hill Playhouse of Delmont, The Geyer Performing Arts Center of Scottdale, Greensburg Civic Theatre, The Theatre Factory of Trafford and Valley Players, Ligonier.
“Each year seems to get better,” co-chairwoman Peg Colosimo said. “There are a lot more sponsors this year and a lot more food vendors donating food.”
The celebration begins with a VIP pre-party from 6 to 7 p.m. Saturday on the stage, which will include piano music, champagne and hors d’oeuvres. Photographs will be taken of each guest and displayed in the theater lobby for a year. At 7 p.m., the party expands with restaurateurs, entertainers and four bars spread throughout the building.
A sweepstakes with a $4,000 cash prize is being held in conjunction with the party. The winning number will be determined by the Pennsylvania Lottery drawing at 7 p.m. Monday.
The annual gala has been an important event for the Palace, raising an average $30,000, which is 38 percent of its overall fundraising budget, said Michael Langer, president of the Westmoreland Cultural Trust. The theater’s annual operating budget is $1.4 million.
The Manos was the grande dame of local theater houses, costing $750,000 and including flourishes such as a mezzanine pond with fountain and goldfish, brass railings, a marble balustrade and murals by Chicago artist Louis Grell. It remained a vaudeville and silent motion picture venue until the success of the talkies, and in 1930 Warner Brothers purchased it. The theater was sold to Cinemette Theatres of Pittsburgh in 1973, and the firm sold it to a local businessman in 1977 .
By the late 1980s, the building was in danger of being torn down when a group of individuals organized to save it. A nonprofit organization, now the Westmoreland Cultural Trust, was formed to purchase the theater in 1990. Renovation costs have topped $12 million since then, and more remains to be done.
Mr. Langer considers it all worthwhile.
“The Palace Theatre generates $8.98 million a year to the local economy,” he said. “The [Greensburg] Cultural District has grown consistently with the Palace. Most restaurants are sold out on show nights. Every year since the trust has taken ownership, we’ve grown in number of shows and attendance.”
He said that last year more than 75,000 attended 113 shows and over 40 special events. The audience comes primarily from outside of Westmoreland County, he said, with 6 percent of those from out of state.
“Someone flew in from Fort Lauderdale,’’ he noted.
Sometimes they come from outside the country. One couple traveled from Australia to check off two items on their bucket list. His was to attend a Pittsburgh Steelers game at home, and hers was to see Peter Noone perform. The English singer-songwriter, best known as Herman of the pop group Herman’s Hermits, played The Palace in July.
“It was their first trip to America, and they came to Greensburg,” Mr. Langer said of the couple.
Another couple came from the Netherlands. “A doctor’s significant other wanted to see The Monkees, and they flew in from Holland for the weekend to see the show,” he said.
When planning programming, “we target approximately eight specific demographic audiences,” Mr. Langer said.“We believe it is part of our mission and our goal that we should provide entertainment for each.” He ticked off a list of offerings that includes rock bands, Broadway musicals, the Westmoreland Symphony Orchestra, the River City Brass Band, ballet and children’s shows.
As to the lineup for Saturday’s gala, Mr. Langer said, “as a county organization that celebrates the arts, we want to reach out. This is our biggest event of the year, and the groups that participate help our fundraising while advertising their efforts in their local communities.”
Ticket prices are $135 for the pre-party, $85 for the party that begins at 7 p.m., and $10 to enter the sweepstakes. For tickets: 724-836-1123, ext. 10, or www.thepalacetheatre.org.
M. Thomas: email@example.com or 412-263-1925.
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