The Grand Theater's History

On October 4, 1924, Harvey H. Blank and Warren E. Fenstermacher opened the Grand Theatre in East Greenville, PA. It was designed and built by Souderton, PA architect Jerome S. Landes, who was also the designer and builder of The Palace Theatre in Quakertown, PA and The Broad Theatre in Souderton, PA. The Grand was to be the most modern and beautiful theatre in the Upper Perkiomen Valley. At the same time Blank and Fenstermacher built The Grand, William W. Bieler built and owned the restaurant in the front right corner of the theatre's "footprint". Through the window in the lobby, ice cream and other treats were sold as this was the theatre's only concession area.

In May of 1945, Warren Fenstermacher passed away, and his 50% interest in The Grand was inherited by his son, Linwood K. Fenstermacher. In December of 1951, Harvey Blank’s 50% interest was sold for $10,000 to Linwood Fenstermacher. Linwood became full owner of The Grand. In January of 1953, Linwood and his wife sold 50% of their interest to June Clarke (Linwood’s daughter) and her husband.

By August of 1966, The Grand, at 42 years old, was showing its age. The operator of The State Theatre in Boyerton, PA, Mr. Jack B. Kline and his son Mr. Jack H. Kline, leased The Grand from Fenstermacher and Clarke. The Grand closed for a 5 month renovation project that newly transformed The Grand Theatre into The Valley Theatre.

On January 20, 1967 (advertising the former Grand as "Everything New Including the Name") the Kline’s officially opened The Valley Theatre as a 7 day a week operation. The Valley boasted improvements such as a newly renovated lobby and concession area, new carpeting, new auditorium curtains, and a modern marquee. The younger Kline, Jack H. became the manager of The Valley.

By January 1970, after 3 very successful years of leasing the building, the Kline’s purchased the building from Fenstermacher and Clarke. In July 1975, the Kline’s sold The Valley to Thomas Thornton Enterprises, due to Jack H. relocating for his job.

January 1977 saw The Valley closed for many months by Thomas Thornton Enterprises. The Kline’s bought the theatre back, completed additional repairs, and re-opened The Valley under the care of Mr. Doug Bricker as Manager until Jack H. returned to the area.

In the Winter of 1982, extensive remodeling was done to The Valley, featuring new seats, a new heating system, new concession stand, new draperies, new carpeting, and a brand new Kintex sound system.

In September 1987, the Kline’s sold The Valley to Ms. Wanda G. Kerver, who also owned and operated The Broad Theatre in Souderton, PA.

The Valley, the last remaining theatre in the Upper Perkiomen Valley, showed its last film and closed in March 2004. All equipment and seating were removed from the building as rumors circulated about the theatre's future. There is no doubt that the rather harsh Winters of 2002 and 2003 accelerated the decay of the compromised roof. Sections of the auditorium ceiling began to collapse. Everything left inside was drenched.

The Grand Theater's Restoration

On August 20, 2004, Souderton Real Estate Agent Ed Buchinski and his business partner John Schortz purchased the former Valley Theater, and subsequently christened the building. Buchinski and Schortz’s company, Grand-Valley Holdings, LP, announced that the building would be saved from demolition. Several weeks later, after an extensive evaluation of the building’s condition and hidden historical elements, Buchinski and Schortz announced their final plans to embark on an extensive restoration project to return the building to its spectacular 1924 appearance and continued use as a theater. To quote Jane Thompson-Smith in the September 30, 2004 edition of The Hearthstone Town and Country newspaper, "Ed Buchinski works in real estate, but he might as well be a magician". Thompson-Smith went on to say, "Conditions were so bad at the theater that it seemed more like a run down tenement than a historic landmark."

As part of the restoration, the original name "The Grand" would be used for the first time in almost 40 years. Following "modern times", the spelling of theatre was changed to theater.

Work on the building, inside and outside, began immediately after settlement, and since it was nearly the end of August, there were two important milestones to reach: new roof and spouting to keep the interior dry, and heat for the upcoming winter. While it was still nice and warm outside, the entire building was so incredibly wet that even after pointing and 2 acid-washings, lime from the original mortar continued to leach onto the exterior brick.

The intent was to return the theater's interior to its 1924 grandeur. The auditorium ceiling in its heyday must have been spectacular, but in its 2004 condition was compromised, rusted, and collapsing. With the discovery of the tin wall panels behind the soaked layers of curtains, there was a dilemma: take the curtains down first to let the walls dry, or take the ceiling down first, leaving the curtains to protect the tin walls. Ultimately, the curtains came down first to expose the most spectacular feature of the auditorium, with exception for the proscenium arch which was still hidden behind a wrinkled movie screen.

Two styles of the original tin ceiling panels were sent to Brian Greer's Tin Ceilings, Walls & Unique Metal Work, located in Ontario. Thanks to his expertise, The Grand has had its original tin auditorium ceiling pattern reproduced. Brian also had a selection of "stock" that precisely matched other sections of the ceiling, walls, and adornment throughout the theater.

The auditorium was gutted, and just about every piece of wood was removed. The inside was so wet, the old doors leading into the auditorium were covered in mold. The old candy counter was demolished, and under the platform we found a time capsule with a copy of the December 15, 1982 Town and Country newspaper and a special note!

On October 4, 2004, The Grand Theater turned 80 years old. Gifts included a new roof, new HVAC, and a very bright future!

All of the rusty and decaying wall panels were sand blasted and primed. Fire doors were relocated, allowing the stage to be enlarged and the proscenium arch widened. The water main, and entire water supply to the theater was replaced. The electrical service to the building was upgraded, and all wiring throughout the building was replaced. Fiberglass insulation was installed in the auditorium ceiling and elsewhere. Most of the lathe to support the tin ceiling in the auditorium was replaced. The projection room was rebuilt with a new layout, and dozens of wires were run throughout the theater for sound and lighting.

The lobby was also gutted, revealing more tin behind the drop ceiling.

Certainly not on budget, a propane tank was buried in the rear of the property for heat. Seems that the local supplier of natural gas was over capacity and couldn't meet the theater's demands for fuel. The already installed HVAC units had to be converted for a new fuel source.

In January of 2005, the auditorium ceiling began to go back up. One square at a time, unlike the original tin panels which were 2 squares attached, the auditorium ceiling was painstakingly replaced. Such care was taken by The Grand's friend, Dan Traupman, to ensure that the panels ran precisely down the center of the auditorium and then square throughout.

After an exhausting 11 month restoration, The Grand hosted a "Black Tie" gala for local community and business leaders on Thursday, July 28, 2005... one day before the official opening. The purpose of this was to re-introduce the theater to the community and spur ideas on how the theater could be used beyond its primary purpose of showing movies. Over 500 invitations were sent out, and there was a very nice turnout. The rented baby grand piano on the stage, with classical music played by Victoria Squicciarini, fueled the atmosphere for guests that reminisced on how the theater was, and marveled on what it had become.

July 29, 2005 was the grand opening of the new Grand Theater to the public. Being able to show "Madagascar" was an incredible fete by The Grand's booking agent, Mr. Rick Wolfe, owner of The Roxy Theatre in Northampton, PA.

A History of Talking Movies and the Grand's Organ Project

In the Summer of 2006, preparation began to install a 2/6 (2-manual, 6-rank) Marr and Colton theater organ in the Grand Theater. Originally installed in the Rivoli Theatre in Chicopee, MA, the instrument played in several private homes before finding its way back to a theater where it truly belongs. Interestingly enough, one of those homes was where The Grand's friend, Mr. Carl Black, Jr., resided.

When the Grand Theater first opened on October 4, 1924 "talkies" were still 3 years away from being introduced to the public. In 1927, a fledging movie studio in Hollywood, Warner Brothers, released the monumental technical innovation that most people now take for granted - talking movies! The film was "The Jazz Singer" and actor Al Jolson's words still ring today around the world: "Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet!". 1929 would be the year that the marvelous innovation of talking motion pictures would come to the Upper Perkiomen Valley, and the Grand Theater!

In the 1920's, almost every town in the United States had a Movie House. It was the 1920's that ushered in the famous Motion Picture Palaces of 4,000, 5,000, even over 6,000 seats! But even small towns in rural communities such as East Greenville had their own Town Movie Palaces. Once over 5,000 existed, now less than 200 single screen theaters exist in the U.S.

Since talking film was not yet invented, the audience demanded that something accompany the show. In the teens, many midsize to large theaters had live orchestras provide sound and effects for the silent films. Having to keep a full orchestra on the payroll was quite an expense to theater owners.

Theater organs were introduced to essentially replace the orchestra. Often referred to as a "one man orchestra", one person could reproduce the sounds of an entire 18 person or larger orchestra - quite a savings for the theater owner!

The 1920's were the heyday of the theater organ. Not to be confused with a church pipe organ, the theater organ is vastly different. Church organs are meant to provide backup of choirs or soft meditation music. Theater organs provide the action, the emotion, and the special effects, and are equally as vital as the show on the screen. Much like today's digital theater surround-sound systems, sound was vital back in the era of the silent film!

These theater organs were used for pre-show music, intermission, and exit music for the audience. Some theaters, such as New York’s Roxy Theater, even had a separate organ just for the lobby entertainment! (Yes, the Roxy’s lobby was BIGGER than the entire Grand!)

However, Warner Brothers’ innovation of a talking film rapidly changed the movie business and the public expected and demanded this new innovation. Thousands of movie theaters across the US placed orders for Vitaphones to convert their theaters to play talkies. The days of the theater organ were numbered. When the Stock Market Crash of 1929 hit and ushered in the Great Depression, already struggling theater organ manufacturers rapidly folded. These marvels of electro-pneumatic innovation were often thrown out to become landfill, along with the beautiful theaters that once housed them.

The Upper Perkiomen Valley featured two Movie Houses in the 1920's: The Grand in East Greenville, and Pennsburg's Aurora Theatre (in the building formerly occupied by Riviera Pizza, destroyed by fire on October 1, 2007). When plans to construct the Grand were announced in the March 7, 1924 edition of The Town and Country newspaper, local competition heated up and the Aurora needed a way to compete with the brand new Grand Theatre. The Aurora countered the coming of the Grand with the announcement that they would install this marvelous innovation - a 2 manual, 3 rank Wurlitzer theater organ in their theater.

The Aurora and many other theaters in the US were flocking to theater organ manufacturers to upgrade and benefit from some cost savings by installing a theater organ. The Aurora’s instrument was delayed almost 2 months and was installed and playable just weeks before the Grand opened.

The owners of the Grand were Mr. Harvey Blank and Mr. Warren Fenstermacher. Mr. Blank, a businessman, was part owner of the Upper Perkiomen Transportation Company. Mr. Fenstermacher was the conductor of the East Greenville Orchestra. Of course, since the co-owner of the Grand was the local orchestra conductor, there would be no pipe organ in his theater! The Grand would feature the six piece Grand Theatre Orchestra until talkies came to the Grand in 1929.

Since silent films are so far removed from the public these days, live orchestral accompaniment for the occasional silent film screening is even farther removed. Given the charm and renewed interest in theater organs, we decided to bring a piece of history from the period into our theater. Since so few historic theaters remain, the same can be said about these incredible pieces of machinery. Since the Grand never had a theater organ to begin with, in a sense we have made history.

By late 2007, the rear section of The Grand's stage had already been annexed, as work continued behind the curtains on either side of the proscenium arch to build chambers which would hold many of the ranks of pipes - those original to the 2/6 Marr and Colton, plus additional ranks and percussions for a future 3-manual Marr and Colton console.

The Grand’s organ project was done in 2 phases, the first being the installation of the 2/6 Marr and Colton console, along with the following ranks and percussions:

In addition, the original electro-mechanical relay from Marr and Colton was replaced with a state-of-the-art electronic relay system custom designed for us by Peterson Organ Products and Opus Two to enhance the reliability and allow us to enlarge the organ with absolutely no change in sound. The relay was designed to accommodate the additions in Phase 2.

The 2/6 Marr and Colton was first heard by the Grand's audiences during pre-show entertainment for our Fourth Annual Christmas Tradition Show that began December 12, 2008. After a week of play, it was silent again until its premier to an almost sold-out house for The Grand's 85th Anniversary on October 4, 2009. World-renowned organist, Mr. Jeff Barker accompanied Mr. Nelson Page's print of the 1925 silent film, "Phantom of the Opera", starring Lon Chaney.

Between the October 4, 2009 premier and Thanksgiving 2009, a set of tuned sleigh bells was completely restored by Mr. Brant Duddy and Mr. Carl Black. The bells were used for the first time on December 11, 2009, for The Grand's Fifth Annual Christmas Tradition Show.

While the ultimate goal of Phase 2 was the installation of the 3-manual Marr and Colton console, it also included an additional 7 ranks, and more percussions, some of which were used at times with the 2-manual console before the 3-manual installation was complete.

The 3-manual Marr and Colton console was originally installed in 1923 at the Ohio Theater in Indianapolis, Indiana. It was relocated to the Bethel Temple Church of Seattle, Washington in the 1940s. After almost 70 years, it has returned to its true home – a theater!

Aside from refinishing the new console, the keyboards have been completely rebuilt with recovered keys. The console has been entirely rewired. The additional ranks, bringing the new console to 3/13 (3-manual, 13 rank) are:

Also added:

The Grand wishes to extend our deepest gratitude to all those critical in the restoration and installation of our Marr & Colton consoles: Mr. Brant Duddy, Mr. Carl Black, Mr. Stephen Greene, Mr. Jon Buchanan, Mr. Matt Taft, and Mr. Brad Shupinski, as well as those who have helped make our premier and ongoing Silent Film Series a success: Mr. and Mrs. Anthony Lucas, Mr. Nelson Page, Mr. Jeff Barker, Mr. Robert Dilworth, and Mr. John Baratta, and of course all of our patrons and supporters!