Exploring Your Freedom on the Arts & Culture Front: The Colonial Theater
The Colonial Theater is a local gem for lovers of arts and culture. Its programming includes cinematic classics, first-run movies, art films, live performances and lively discussion opportunities.
But the theater isn't so high-brow that it can't poke fun at itself every now and then.
Which is exactly the point behind its annual celebration of Blobfest, a multiday tribute to The Blob, a 1958 screamer whose climax was filmed onsite.
Beth Lennon, a volunteer guide at the Colonial, has the inside scoop on not only the filming of The Blob but also The Colonial Theater's long history.
"The original building dates back to 1903," she says. "It was the dream of local businessman Harry Brownback, who wanted to bring New York-style entertainment to Phoenixville." The first theater was carved out of two existing storefronts on Bridge Street, nestled among a fish monger, furrier, paperhanger and 5&10.
Those storefronts turned out to be one of the keys to the survival of the Colonial over the next 100 years.
A variety of owners followed Brownbeck, and various renovations brought it closer to the look the theater sports today. A projected sign hung from the façade from the 1930s to the 1950s, and although it was removed, Lennon can still point out the vestiges of the bracket that held it in place.
In its place, the marquee was redesigned in its present trapezoidal shape, with the neon letters C-O-L-O-N-I-A-L blazing in their electric glory.
This iteration of the Colonial was captured in The Blob, which went on to become a significant hit. Box office receipts totaled $4 million, back when movie tickets were 50 cents apiece. "The highlight is clearly the run out," Lennon laughs, "when our audience recreates the scene in the movie of theater-goers escaping the Blob by running into the street." She shows me some of the decorations the theater employs for the festival, including a balloon-like version of the monster that is inflated on the building's marquee.
Circling back to the building's history, Lennon states that in the 1970s and 1980s, the Colonial hit the same hard times that struck many neighborhood cinemas. But through a little luck and a little vision, it survived.
"The best thing that ever happened to the Colonial was that it never went dark," she explains. "When a theater officially closes for an extended period, it's open to all kinds of damage. The heat and air conditioning are turned off, which can stress the structure from a humidity standpoint. It also means that if a leak occurs, nobody is there to see it. So it can do major harm before anybody notices."
A series of renovations brought the space back to life, and again, luck played a role: "The front of the Colonial - those stores on either side - gave us the flexibility to be creative," Lennon cites. "They first became display space and a box office. Later, they provided room for our elevator, which enables us to be ADA-compliant."
The elevator makes the upper floors of the theater more accessible, adding one more unique experience to seeing a film at the Colonial. "I may be wrong about this," Lennon says, "but I believe we're the only theater left in the area where someone can watch a movie from the balcony."
Tucked up among those seats is a plaque attached to the wall of the projection room, a small tribute to the theater's most famous star, The Blob. In bronze, the alien is depicted seeping through hole for the projector, and visitors frequently rub it for luck.
I do, too.
"Actually, The Blob is only one of a number of stars we've had on our stage," Lennon says. "Harry Houdini performed here. And more recently, Kevin Bacon and Michael Nesmith, who was with The Monkees."
The Colonial Theater plans to expand its role in the local arts and culture scene. It has purchased the former Phoenixville Savings Bank next door and will use the space for a roomier lobby, a small screening room and additional performance venues. "We intend to preserve the skylights and dentil moldings," Lennon states, pointing upward. An array of windows, darkened by a covering on the rooftop, awaits the day when sun will stream through them. And the small decorative squares that grace the perimeter of the ceiling need only a good brushing to spruce them up, much like a row of pearly, architectural teeth. "They help make this an unbelievable space, and we're really excited to move ahead with this project."
Everyone knows that an effective guard against monsters is to squirm down into a bed and draw the covers over your head. If viewing The Blob - as part of Blobfest or even on DVD - causes you to seek that form of protection, you might as well do it in style. See our list of recommended hotels. And for treat that is decidedly not blobby, order a side of garlic mashed potatoes to accompany your savory entrée at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse.