The theatres located in Middletown have been a vital piece of our town for years, with established theatres dating back to 1907. Before the famous Elks Theatre, there were others that stood in its place. In 1907, the Auditorium Theatre was built and located on the second floor of the Auditorium Building that is currently on the Southwest corner of W. Emaus Street & S. Union Street, where the Elks Theatre is now. Tragically, in 1910, the entire building burned down, closing the Auditorium Theatre for good. Another theatre stole the spotlight in 1911 when the Majestic Theatre opened on the corner of Brown Street and S. Union Street; the theatre only operated for a short while. Lastly, another theatre called The Realty Theatre opened on Emaus Street and continued operating until 1930, where they added Western Electric Sound Equipment and renamed itself the Elks Theatre. The theatre continued to thrive in business, having its first showing of Talking Pictures—a movie with a soundtrack— on June 16th, 1931. Ever since, the theatre continued operating until its recent shutdown in 2015.
The historic Elks Theatre, which was the only operating theatre in town, had been a core part of Middletown. Back in October 1911, the theatre first opened with 700 seats available for usage, which diminished to around 450 in the 2000s. The theatre was originally designed for silent movie films and is currently one of the oldest continually operating neighborhood motion picture theatres in the U.S. with a full balcony. After talkies became popular, Elks began to show those too, resulting in increased popularity throughout the county. The balcony it had to seat viewers was a huge attraction to many in the area. This theatre only has one screen due to its relatively small size, but the screen stretched across the width of most of the room.
Unfortunately, the leading allure of the theater is also what brought its downfall. The historic building was starting to fall apart due to the poor internal support framework that it was given when it was originally built. People started to stop using the theatre due to the fear that the theatre would cave in from deterioration, which ended up leading to its shutdown. The owners of the theatre decided to sell it after temporarily shutting down to install a digital projection system – which would allow them to do showings of first-run movies. With the need of adding new equipment and managing the interior of the building, there was not enough money to stay in business which is what forced them to sell. Middletown Industrial and Commercial Development Authority (ICDA) bought the Elks Building, including the Elks Theatre in 2014. In April of 2015, the theatre was closed to undergo renovations to fix the threat of withering structures and vacancy, but they too did not have enough money to do so. The ICDA decided to put the theatre up for sale since they lacked funds to do anything with it and did not want to spend borough dollars fixing the small but pricey location.
The Friends of The Elks is a Middletown-based nonprofit group that tried to help save the theatre when it first closed with Middletown’s department. Knowing of its incredibly rich history in the town, they tried to negotiate with the ICDA to buy the theatre from them. Their plan was to accept the ICDA’s deal to sell them the theatre for only $1, which mean all the money that would originally be spent on buying the theatre could be used to fix it. Ultimately, the ICDA decided against the decision and put the theatre and building up for sale, fearing the theatre simply could not be fixed. Unfortunately for the town it seems that the longer the theatre is closed, the less likely it is to ever open again.
As of now, a part of the Elks Building is in new hands with a new purpose. The Tattered Flag Brewery & Still Works has bought the front part of the building and transformed it into a distillery and still works. The theatre remains unchanged and in need of renovation. Though slim, this does leave hope for the theatre to perhaps open once again, but it would require a lot of work. The current asking price for the theatre is $300,000 as of 2019, but that price is negotiable. A construction company that works for the Tattered Flag thought that the total cost to fix and refurbish the theatre (into an arts center, the original plan of Friends of The Elk) would be around $1.1 million. This money struggle is what has weighed down the sale of the theatre for years since people are hesitant to pouring that much money into fixing the one screen theatre. Hopefully, one day the theatre may be able to reopen if it can get the support and money needed to fix it, allowing for its former glory to be restored once more.
Story prepared by: Alexis Jefferson
Crist, Jonathan M. “Elks Theatre.” Cinema Treasures, cinematreasures.org/theaters/469.
Gallagher, Shane. “Elks Theater.” Historic Harrisburg Association, 18 June 2019, historicharrisburg.org/2019/06/18/elks-theater/.
Marroni, Steve. “Empty 107-Year-Old Elks Theatre up for Sale, Asking Price Negotiable.” PENNLIVE, Pennlive, 20 Dec. 2018, www.pennlive.com/news/2018/12/elks-theatre-for-sale-asking-price-negotiable.html.
Middletown Area Historical Society. 29th Annual Middletown Colonial Arts & Crafts Fair. Triangle Press, 2004.
Miller, Dan. “Historic Elks Theatre in Middletown Put up for Sale; Friends Group Wanted to Buy It for $1.” Press & Journal, 16 May 2018, www.pressandjournal.com/stories/historic-elks-theatre-in-middletown-put-up-for-sale-by-icda,33906.