The Roxy Theatre: A Historic Movie House in the Modern Day
At the beginning of the 20th century, before the advent of TV and way before the Internet, it was common for many small towns to have more than one theater offering a variety of entertainment. Fast forward to today at the beginning of the 21st century, and finding any downtown theater is a rarity.
Even more rare is to find a place like the Roxy Theatre. Located in the small town of Northampton, Pennsylvania, the Roxy is a lovingly restored Art Deco movie house and live venue, complete with working pipe organ and dazzling marquee.
Built in 1920 by Harry Hartman, who owned two theaters serving this small hamlet north of Allentown, the Roxy was originally known as the Lyric, replacing a smaller theater of the same name located just across the street. This New Lyric with expanded seating and a larger stage for vaudeville acts was a popular local destination, but could not survive the hardships of the depression. Hartman sold it to Clark and Greenberg Theatres of Philadelphia in 1933.
Clark and Greenberg renamed the theater the Roxy and solicited help from fellow Philadelphian and theater architect David Supowitz to completely update the theater in the new popular Art Deco mode. While this transformation reduced the seating capacity of the auditorium by almost a third, it brought welcomed updates, most notably the addition of the oversized lighted marquee to Main Street, which is still a car-stopper to this day.
Throughout this second life, the Roxy was a popular destination filled with entertainment for the entire family. With the invention of the “talkies,” the Roxy became more of a traditional movie theater; however stage shows were still mounted on occasion. Local radio station WSAN hosted a popular amateur talent show from the Roxy in the 1930s, and in the 1950s live music events graced the stage, including performances by popular singers of the day such as Bobby Rydell and Fabian.
Like many downtown theaters affected by the burgeoning television boom and suburban multiplexes, the Roxy barely managed to survive the 1960s. Rescued from oblivion by Angstadt and Wolfe Theatres in 1970, the theater was in tough shape after almost a decade of neglect, but the new owners were dedicated to restoring her to her former glory.
Much like in the 1930s, local radio station WSAN brought many live acts to The Roxy in the early 1970s, including such well-known names as KISS, John Belushi, and Bruce Springsteen. Most notably, Billy Joel made his debut there as a solo headliner with two sold-out engagements.
Restoration of the theater under the watchful eye of owner Rick Wolfe was of paramount importance, with one of the most obvious improvements being the complete restoration of the marquee.
Wolfe notes, “When we acquired the theater, the marquee had been painted over entirely with beige paint, and only 38 of the hundreds of chasing bulbs were working.”
Using historical photographs and documents, Wolfe was able to establish the original colors of the massive sign, and worked to get all of the neon replaced and every bulb lit. Even now, there is a daily check to ensure that not one bulb is out. This dazzling display brightens up quiet Main Street and attracts moviegoers like moths to the flame.
Also of historical importance, Wolfe installed a Wurlitzer pipe organ in the auditorium replacing one that had been removed. The geometric deco stenciling lining the walls and ceiling were returned to their historically accurate color palate and gold leaf was reapplied, creating a warm glow.
Most recently he updated the seating to give more leg and seat room to modern patrons, and also switched to digital projection.
Today the Roxy is primarily a movie house, but still hosts live shows and organ concerts on the original vaudeville stage. Hearkening back to the earlier era of this historic theater, however, Wolfe insists that the curtain remain closed prior to each show so it can be ceremoniously opened before the movie, reminding modern patrons of the grandeur that was once common in small towns across the country.