a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Glad someone else remembered this old theater


CHARLEROI, Pa. – Despite having spent countless hours as a child in the seats of the old Coyle Theater in Charleroi, I have few memories of the place. That’s because I’ve always been a sucker for movies, and lost all sense of time and place after the credits rolled into the story.

Recognizing that at an early age, my parents probably knew they could drop me off at the Coyle in the late 1960s without a babysitter and that I’d stay safely in my seat until the movie ended.

Then I followed the crowd out the isle to the lobby and street and stood there under the lights of the marquee for a few minutes big-eyed, dazed and confused and still under the spell of Hollywood.

There were several other theaters in the Mon Valley at the time, including the Manos in nearby Monessen and the Liberty in Donora. But the Coyle was special because it always carried the best movies and had a mysterious balcony for adults only.

I didn’t know it then but the 999-seat theater at 331 McKean Ave. was built in 1895 for vaudeville and burlesque and originally catered to actors who came to town by paddle boat.

By 1999 the Coyle was shuddered, outsourced by television and mall theaters. The surrounding downtown lost its heart and soul without a theater, and businesses suffered even further from the loss of thousands of steel jobs in the region.

Along came Nancy Ellis, a local woman who had a vision to reopen the theater with a leaking roof and mounting debts from unpaid property taxes. Many people thought she was out of her mind, yet she kept her dream alive for nearly a decade, raising just enough money to repair the roof and stabilize the brick building.

Out of nowhere, Ellis has become a feel-good story drawn from the script of a Broadway musical about a stage lost, only to be resurrected by a song and prayer.

The nonprofit she formed, the Mid-Mon Valley Cultural Trust, was awarded $250,000 last week in proceeds from Pennsylvania’s new slots parlor revenues, those pulled from the purse of a casino that opened in 2007 at The Meadows Racetrack and Casino in Washington County. She now is seeking a project manager to oversee restorations and a local theater group to claim the stage.

Movies are expected to roll again, too, at the Coyle in the fall of 2009. I hope to be among the first in line to grab a ticket and fill in the blanks of faded memories of a downtown where crowds once gathered for a common purpose.

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Photo: Observer-Reporter

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