Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era
It's two for the show in Middletown Borough council, group struggle for control of historic movie theater's future.
BY P.J. REILLY, Staff Writer
In 1911, the first Indianapolis 500 auto race was held.
The first aerial photo was shot from an airplane in the United States.
The Olympic-class, British passenger ship Titanic was launched.
And the Elks Theatre in Middletown showed its first movie.
The 101-year-old movie theater, which has operated continuously in the heart of Middletown's business district since the Titanic first set sail, is a critical component to revitalizing the downtown, borough officials and business leaders agree.
Given the uncertain future of the nearby MoviE-Town in Elizabethtown, the Elks could draw bigger crowds in the future.
But restoring the theater to its former glory appears to have two preservation-minded groups butting heads in this riverside town in Dauphin County.
The nonprofit Greater Middletown Economic Development Corp. has owned the historic building at 4 W. Emaus St. since 2005, and is in the midst of a capital campaign to raise money to buy equipment to show digital films and to build a new marquee.
Borough council, however, last summer voted to begin proceedings to take the theater from the development group by eminent domain.
"They've had seven years to do something with that building and there has been virtually no progress," said borough secretary and communications director Chris Courogen.
"Borough council sees the theater as a key to the downtown revitalization, and they're not just going to sit around waiting forever for something to happen."
Gordon Einhorn, a board member of the development group, disagrees on the lack of progress.
He said that since the organization acquired the building for $350,000, with a grant given to the borough by the state Department of Community and Economic Development, the organization has put $100,000 into a new roof, made $50,000 in masonry repairs and is about to oversee the installation of a new HVAC system this month.
"The improvements we've made aren't necessarily too visible," Einhorn said. "But we've done significant work on that building."
Einhorn's son, Max, is spearheading a capital campaign launched last fall that hopes to raise $200,000 for the theater.
The most pressing need, he said, is $60,000 for digital-projection equipment, which is key because the industry is moving to producing only digital films.
The MoviE-Town theater faces the same challenge. Its owner has put the business up for sale.
The development group not only owns the 469-seat, one-screen Elks Theatre, but it manages it as well.
The theater shows first-run films, such as "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters," which is playing now.
To help raise funds for the theater, however, classic movies have been shown there periodically over the past four months to rave reviews, according to Max Einhorn.
"We're getting bigger crowds for the classics than we are for some of the first-run screenings," he said.
Today through Sunday, the theater will show the Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart classic "Sabrina."
"Sabrina" will be shown at 7 p.m. today, 9:15 p.m. Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday.
The theater charges $1.25 more than usual admission for the classic showings, with all those extra proceeds going to the development group.
More classic movie showings are planned. Among the films slated to be shown at the Elks through May are "The Godfather," "Taxi Driver," "The Evil Dead" and "Saturday Night Fever."
Following previous screenings of "The Thing," "White Christmas," and several Monty Python films, among others, Max Einhorn said the organization has raised about $10,000 to date.
"These films were meant to be seen on the big screen, and we're getting people who come from all over the area to see them," Max Einhorn said.
In fact, the classic screenings have been so successful, Max Einhorn said, the theater will keep its 35mm projection equipment when it buys the new digital gear so that old movies can continue to be shown at the Elks.
Courogen said the borough is aware of the capital campaign.
"We certainly hope that they are successful," he said.
Still, the borough is moving forward with its plan to take the building by eminent domain.
Apart from the vote to proceed, no official action has been taken.
Courogen said the borough's solicitor is reviewing the eminent domain process.
Although both sides said they'd like to work with each other, they don't.
Courogen said the borough has tried to get information about the development group's work and finances, but it's been stonewalled.
Max Einhorn said his organization was blindsided by the borough's vote to take the building from the organization.
"We have a borough council that has set its sights on development, and they've made GMEDC an enemy," he said.
Kathy Suhr, owner of Alma's Flowers and Gifts, which occupies one of three storefronts that are part of the Elks Theatre building, supports GMEDC's efforts.
And she wishes the borough would do the same.
The theater "is a vital, key piece to our town, and I want it to be here forever," she said. "We need the borough's support."