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Column #78 - April 23, 2000

 by Glenn Tunney

         Brownsville's Opera House, also called the Richie Theater, burned on the night of February 19, 1919, but its site was not vacant for long.  Historian Norene Halvonik has produced an excellent history of the structures in Brownsville's business district.  Her 1991 Master of Arts thesis for George Washington University is entitled "The Commercial and Architectural Development of Brownsville, Pennsylvania," and it is a treasure house of information about the town.
         What replaced the Opera House?  The year after the fire, two brick buildings were erected on the site, and both are still standing today.  "The larger of the two buildings was occupied by the G. C. Murphy Company," wrote Halvonik, "and the smaller by Gottesman's (later Solomon's) meat and produce market on the ground floor and doctors' offices on the second."
         Fate was not quite finished with its Brownsville urban renewal project.  Three years after the Opera House fire, flames again lit up the Neck.  "Another fire in 1922 swept through three of the last remaining wooden structures in the district," wrote Halvonik, "destroying the Wolfe and Paul (hardware), the Harry Levy (clothing) and the Sharpnack and Conelly (furniture and hardware) buildings."
          The loss of the Opera House left the community with two theaters.  South Brownsville boasted the Bison Theater on High Street, and at the north end of Brownsville's Neck,  the Arcade Theater was thriving.
         The Arcade was the older of the two, its origin probably dating back into the late nineteenth century.  Sometimes called a ‘nickelodeon,' it stood directly across the street from the old Union Station, which was at the same site as the present Union Station.
         The Arcade's best known operator was Elson Hommell, who ran Brownsville's  Opera House from 1906 to 1909 before moving to Homestead for a year to operate an opera house there. He returned in 1910 and purchased the Arcade Theater from Armstrong and Markel.  Initially his only competition in town was the Opera House, as the Bison Theater was not built until 1913.  Hommell enlarged the 100-seat Arcade to a capacity of 499, keeping the number under 500, he said, to avoid a higher license fee.  To remind downtown shoppers of the Arcade's presence, Hommell placed a phonograph in the theater's lobby and its blaring music echoed throughout the Neck.
         McCready Huston, in his Telegraph newspaper column ‘And That Was Brownsville,' once described what he could remember of the Arcade Theater before the advent of silent movies.   "It was the day of the illustrated song," he wrote.  "To pictures thrown on the screen, the performer supplied the verse and refrain, either to accompaniment of his own or that of another pianist."
         One performer who came to Brownsville was a New Yorker named Joe Eyster, who was featured at the Arcade. "He put his all into it," marveled Huston.  "When he did ‘Sunbonnet Sue' to the crude colored slides of the day, he blasted the ear drums not only inside the narrow bandbox but rivaled the lobby phonograph which to me, a passenger ticket clerk in the Union Station across the street, seemed to be aiming decibels as far away as the Iron Bridge day and night.  Between shows, Joe liked to lounge among the privileged loafers who filled chairs in the recessed entrance.  Joe's seat provided him with a showcase and a view of the Neck."
         In 1922, the Arcade met the same fate as the Lyceum and the Opera House.  Elson Hommell was 51 years old when his theater burned down.  He went to work for the Brownsville Telegraph as advertising manager for the next two years, then spent seven years with the White Line Taxi company.  He also sold real estate and was in on the development of Blainesburg, Knoxville Addition, Hiller and the Woodward plan of lots.  "I remember when those places were cow pastures," he once said.
         When Elson Hommell was 72 years old, he could still be found working in Brownsville's theaters.  Ruby Baker, now of Sixth Boulevard, Blainesburg, was a teenaged ticket seller at the Strand Theater in 1943.  She remembers the diminutive Mr. Hommell very well.
         "Old Mr. Hommell was a ‘checker' at that time," Ruby remembers.  "He was a little man, very short. A checker was a person hired by the movie companies to count the customers to be sure that the studios were getting paid the proper amount.  He would count the people as they went in."
         Ruby told me that some cashiers, feeling sorry for kids who could not afford a ticket, would look the other way so they could sneak into the theater.  I wondered how this affected Mr. Hommell's customer count.
         "How did you get around that, if you were letting kids in free?"
         "We got around that because when he would go to lunch, you would get some tickets that weren't on the roll.  If Mr. Hommell would go somewhere, when he returned he would check the number on your ticket roll."  She realizes now that her kind-hearted actions could have backfired.  "I didn't know it at the time, but I could have gone to jail for that!"
         In his later years, Elson Hommell and his wife Carrie lived a quiet life at 100 Broadway in Brownsville.  Carrie was herself an accomplished pianist and organist, having studied at the John Crouse college of Syracuse University.  Despite her talent, she spurned a concert career, confining her musical performances to church activities.
           Margaret and Bill Johnson remember the Hommells as an elderly couple who eagerly anticipated Margaret's visits to deliver their medicine from Central Pharmacy.  "They were two very kind and special friends to us," Margaret remembers.  "Mr. Hommell would often tell us stories of his early days in Brownsville.  Mrs. Hommell must have been a very beautiful and well educated young lady, as she played the piano so well, even with her crippled, doubled over fingers.  I can see her yet, seated at her piano, playing for me while other patients were waiting for their medicine to be delivered."
         The destruction of Elson Hommell's Arcade Theater back in 1922 had cost Brownsville its oldest theater, but by then there were three others in town.  The Bison, the Strand and the Plaza were all built within a span of eight years, and it is these three movie houses that many longtime residents remember.
         The first of that trio of theaters to open was the Bison.  Located on High Street opposite the National Deposit  (now National City) Bank, it stood to the right of the Crawford building, which currently houses the Antique Grill.  Today the former site of the Bison is part of a small parking lot.
         The Bison Theater was opened in March of 1913 by the Wright Amusement Company, but within weeks it was taken over by C. D. Wright, who became its owner.  It was a small theater with two aisles separating narrow seating areas along the sides from a wider center section.  There was no balcony.
         In its early years, the Bison specialized in silent western films.  By July 1929, the theater  reached a milestone.  A Brownsville Telegraph article proclaimed, "Imagine one million children cheering wildly as Tom Mix dashed down the rough side of the rugged Rockies on his faithful horse, Tony, to the rescue of a golden-haired girl and you have somewhat of a conception of the number of children who passed through the doors of the Bison Theater since its opening some sixteen years ago."
         Having served over a million children, the theater's management boasted,  "While establishing a reputation for its super-silent films, the Bison compiled a unique record in that during the entire 16 years of its operation here, not one child has even been injured in any manner in the theater."
         But change was in the wind in 1929.  The theater business was undergoing a revolutionary change, and the Bison attempted to place a positive spin on its silent feature films.
         "Although the talking pictures within recent months have gained considerable popularity," the Bison announced, "the silent picture which leaves free play to imagination of the audience has not lost its drawing power.  The decision of Mr. Wright to bring only the best of the silent pictures to the Bison is being greeted enthusiastically by persons residing in this district."
         The Bison placed a display ad in the July 1, 1929 issue of the Brownsville Telegraph.  It read, "Big Pictures Are Coming To This Theatre Soon!  In order to give the people of Brownsville and vicinity the latest and best in the moving picture field, this prominent theater will soon be remodeled and the latest and best pictures run.  Many high grade silent pictures have been made this year and have never been run because of the newness of the sound picture.  It will be the policy of this house to show these high grade pictures."
         But who would want to watch silent pictures when ‘talkies' were available?  The showing of sound pictures required a considerable investment in equipment by the theaters, but survival in the business demanded it, and the Bison yielded to the tide.  Next week, we will go inside the Bison to catch the latest adventure of The Durango Kid, then it's up the street for a soda and some dancing. Bring a friend!