By Betty VanNewirk
The closing of the Palace Theatre was a blow to the people of Frostburg who, for almost seventy years, had trudged through the snow for children’s matinees, sat in the balcony with high school sweethearts, and taken advantage of Penny Night in their tight budgeted early years of marriage. They missed the movies, the atmosphere, and the popcorn that tasted better than any other they could buy.
Competition from new movie houses, where one projectionist could handle four screens, and Frostburg State College, where students could see a nearly new film for a dollar, put the Palace in difficulties. The last straw was the contract made with a distributor who sent out inappropriate pictures.
In November of 1981, for instance, there was Brubaker , the story of a warden who investigated prison life by having himself confined as a criminal. It was not family fare; even the reviewers said it was not for the squeamish, and the people of Frostburg stayed away.
The last film, opening the first week of December, was Paper Chase. Made eight years earlier and recycled as a TV serial in the ’70s, its only distinction was John Houseman in an Oscar-winning supporting role. The theatre closed abruptly on December 8.
In earlier years the Palace was a very successful enterprise. It had begun as a nickelodeon owned by a Mr. Talbot. Customers were lured inside by the strains of a phonograph and the spiel of a barker; Joe Durst served in the capacity. The short, jerky reels of film were supplemented by slides and lectures to provide approximately an hour of entertainment.
The Spates brothers bought the building in 1911 and added the auditorium we now think of as the theatre. When it reopened in 1913 more than a thousand people paid to see “Child of War,” a tearjerker based on an incident at Williamsport, just before the battle at Gettysburg. Proceeds went to the sons of Veterans.
Another memorable picture was “Stand Up and Fight,” in 1939, when Robert Taylor and Wallace Beery, setting out for the west, announced that they would be traveling through Frostburg. Local audiences cheered when they heard the town motioned, and sent their friends to fill the theatre on following nights.
Local pride contributed to record-breaking attendance in 1915, but in a somewhat different way. On Monday, June 21, the Palace ran the first installment of a twenty-five-part serial called “A Diamond from the Sky,” touted as “one of the fines conceptions ever brought forth.” What made this production very special was that its author, Roy L. McCardell, had local connections. His father, who had served in the Confederate Army with J. Benson Oder of the Mining Journal , was for a number of years managing editor of the Cumberland Evening Times . Roy became a reporter for the New York World and wrote stories that were published in a number of magazines, including the Saturday Evening Post .
He offered his services as a script writer to the Biograph Film Company in New York, and was told that if he could supply ten scripts an week he would be paid ten dollars for each of them (most movies at that time were improvised as they were being filmed). By the time “A Diamond from the Sky” was made, he was the highest-paid scriptwriter in the world, receiving thirty thousand dollars for the script and editorial supervision on that film alone.
There was still another inducement for seeing “The Diamond” at the Palace. A prize of ten thousand dollars was offered for the best sequel to the series. There is no report that the prize was ever awarded. Perhaps, after twenty-five weeks of watching Lottie Pickford, Mary’s younger sister, escape from seemingly inevitable disaster, everyone was glad to forget it.
Oddly, in spite of the length of the film and the success of its author, neither one is mentioned in most of the sources on motion picture history; it takes deep digging to find proof that they actually existed.
There is one more movie incident in Frostburg that should be mentioned. In 1922 an ad appeared in the Times announcing that “The Romance of Frostburg” was about to be filmed with local actors. Readers were invited to cast their votes for the young lady and gentleman in the major roles; the ballots printed in the paper could be dropped either at the Palace or at the Lyric in Frostburg. Until the last hours of the contest, Edna Eisel and Noel Speir Cook led in the polls, only to be nosed out by Guy Wright and Meyer Abramson.
Then the cameraman, expected from Washington, D.C., was delayed. When he finally appeared, shooting the picture seemed to take less time that the choosing of the stars. Perhaps it is fortunate that there seems to be no record that the promised picture- a stirring story of a young man arriving in the town on a freight train, making good, and marrying a local girl- was never shown.
The Palace Theatre is a landmark in Frostburg, but it is not just a building. The shows it presented, the experiences of people in connection with those entertainments, are woven into the texture of our lives in Frostburg.