For many area moviegoers, it was a sad day when the West Shore Theatre in New Cumberland screened its final showing nearly a year ago.
But today a grassroots organization is working to reopen the historic venue with a kickoff fundraiser scheduled for Jan. 10.
In February 2018, the West Shore Theatre closed its doors after more than 75 years of entertaining local audiences. Attendance had steadily declined as movie streaming services, low-cost DVD rental kiosks and other digital-age innovations became readily accessible to the viewing public.
“No one wanted to see it go away,” lifelong New Cumberland resident David Stone said earlier this month. “They used to have a theater in Lemoyne, there was one in Mechanicsburg, there was one in Camp Hill. Everyone had a theater around here. We were the only one left.”
That’s why Stone and other area residents formed Friends of the West Shore Theatre, a Pennsylvania nonprofit corporation working to preserve and reopen the venue at 317 Bridge St. in New Cumberland. The Friends of the West Shore Theatre is a project of the Foundation for Enhancing Communities, a nonprofit organization serving Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Lebanon, and Perry counties, along with the Dillsburg area.
“It is important to preserve the West Shore Theatre. New Cumberland has its own little downtown area, but it’s also important to preserve the theater for the whole area,” said Stone, the organization’s treasurer.
“The theater is an integral part of New Cumberland,” said Christine Leukus, Friends of the West Shore Theatre director.
The Friends of West Shore Theatre is hosting its first public fundraiser, “Encore, Encore,” from 6 to 8 p.m. on Jan. 10 at the theater. The public is invited to tour the building, chat with neighbors, and check out a rendered display of the nonprofit organization’s plans for the 1939 building that opened as the community’s theater in 1940.
Also that evening, the theater will screen a continuous loop of two vintage silent movies, “A Trip to The Moon” from 1902 and “The Great Train Robbery” from 1903. Popcorn, 1940s movie candy and other light refreshments will be on hand. Organizers also plan to film a special video of the event comprising the public’s personal memories of the West Shore Theatre.
Tickets for “Encore, Encore” are available for purchase at http://www.friendsofthewestshoretheatre.com. The Friends of the West Shore Theatre also is on Facebook.
In 2015, then-owner Fred Bollen put the West Shore Theatre up for sale due to reported financial difficulties, a direct result of the venue’s dwindling audiences. In February 2018, a “private individual” purchased the theater and is leasing it to Friends of West Shore Theatre, Leukus said. Several area publications identified the buyers earlier this year as Joseph Kowalcyk and son Ben Kowalcyk.
Stone said that Friends of the West Shore Theatre is leasing the building from the new owners with an option to buy. The nonprofit organization started up last summer with “seed money” raised from “generous donors” at a small fundraiser held at a private home in the community, Stone said.
On its website, the Friends of the West Shore Theatre lists the organization’s mission as being “to reopen the theatre as a multipurpose venue to serve the community by featuring movies, independent movie festivals, jazz and folk music, speaker series, and more.”
The “Encore, Encore” fundraiser on Jan. 10 is the kickoff of a large-scale capital campaign to “renovate, revitalize and reopen (the theater) as a cultural center, as well as a movie theater,” Leukus said. For now, organizers hope to raise around $1 million for the project, but figures remain tentative.
Although the theater has aged walls and acoustic walls need repairs, Leukus said her group doesn’t want the theater to “lose the integrity of what it is now.” Irreplaceable hand-painted designs that grace much of the theater’s existing walls and ceilings will be cleaned and restored to a sparkling luster, according to plans, while the lobby will be expanded and renovated for group events. The concession stand also will be modernized.
For now, organizers have no timeline for when the theater might reopen.
“We’re still in a research stage right now (for theater renovations) and working with architects. We also need to get a sound engineer lined up,” Leukus said.