By Betty VanNewirk
Two years ago, when RC Theatres rented the Palace Theatre, we were delighted with the promise of a brightly lit marquee and the prospect of seeing movies in traditional surroundings, instead of an electronically equipped cement box. Unfortunately, Frostburg citizens were disappointed in the choice of pictures that were offered, and RC was disappointed in the small audiences that showed up. The contract has been terminated, and along Main Street we hear a murmur: What will happen to the Palace Theatre now?
The building itself is owned by the people of Frostburg. It was their contributions that bought it. Donors elect officers to manage the facility, and three Trustees, one named by the Mayor and Council, one chosen by the Business and Professional Association, and the third representing the community at large, are specified in the articles of incorporation. No individual profits from the enterprises; no one is paid for his services, and no one holds any stock in the company. Monies received from the rental of the upstairs apartments or space on the marquee cover the cost of utilities; rental of the theatre is added to donations and applied to improving the building and its facilities.
Fifty-year-old theatres are considered ‘historic’. The Frostburg Palace Theatre turns Eighty-seven in June! The lobby area of the building has been an entertainment center even longer, dating back to 1906 when it was a nickelodeon (literally, a five-cent theatre) called Dreamland. Mr. Talbot, the owner paid teenager Jonas Durst ninety cents a week to lure customers with music blasted through a Victrola horn. Once inside they could see ten one-reelers, over-acted, and soundless. Only one hundred ninety-nine people could be admitted at one time- an audience of two hundred would have required Mr. Talbot to purchase a theatre license.
The building was not new even then. It is shown on the Sanborn Insurance Map of 1890 as a candy store and bakery; the oven was in the basement.
In 1904 one side of the building, where a lawyer has his office now, became a print shop, where Mr. Zimmerly, chief printer for the Frostburg Mining Journal , did job printing on the side. He was still there when the Spates brothers bought the building in 1912, and added a fifty-foot auditorium behind it, and renamed it The Palace.
When Mr. Zimmerly moved his presses to Broadway, the eastern half of the building became Zeller’s Barbershop. It was noteworthy in its early years for providing not only shaves and haircuts, but also baths in big zinc tubs, with hot and cold water. Much later it gained notoriety as a gathering place and a betting parlor.
The enlarged Palace Theatre was redecorated by a firm from Baltimore, and was touted as the most beautiful movie house in Maryland. Further improvements came at intervals- a Wurlitzer organ, a wider screen, more comfortable seats, and a sound system when Talkies replaced silent pictures.
Along with progress, however, there were also setbacks. In March 1914, a fire that perhaps started in a wastebasket raged for two hours, and closed down the theatre for more than three months. In 1925 the Hitchins Department Store, across the alley from the Palace, burned down. Apparently the heat weakened the west wall of the theatre; it collapsed a week later. That time the rebuilding included a remodeled entrance and two apartments on the second floor, which had been only storage space before.
The Spates family closed the theatre in 1981, after the multi-screened shopping mall theatres began offering more movies with less overhead. Distributors added to the local problems by dictating which pictures were to be shown and for how long, regardless of their appropriateness for Frostburg audiences.
For several years the Palace stood empty. Then the non-profit Frostburg Theatre Corporation was organized. Local people contributed generously to saving the facility, and made it possible to install new heating systems, to renovate the apartments, and to provide much improved restrooms. When RC Theatres leased the building, they introduced a wide screen and better projections facilities, which remain in place.
The Frostburg Palace Theatre survives. It belongs to the people of Frostburg. The marquee is available for announcing local events, and the auditorium can be used for plays and concerts, for vintage movies and lectures, and the lobbies are ideal for small art or craft shows.
The Theatre belongs to all of us. Let’s make good use of it.