The F. M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts is a performing arts theater in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The grand art deco theater originally opened in 1938 as a movie house and operated as such until 1977. It reopened in 1986, newly restored as the Kirby Center for the Performing Arts. The theater’s exterior is a unique trapezoidal shape and the art deco façade is made from marble and terracotta.
The original carpet has been restored according to old photographs and written descriptions from the 1930s. In addition, the colors and style of the hand-painted wallpaper and the ceilings in the lobby have been meticulously matched through research and skill, and re-painted with the same 1938 art deco technique. The seating has been updated to preserve the lines of sight while offering more leg room, more wheelchair accessible seating, and more comfortable red-velvet cushions for today’s patrons. The Kirby Center has hosted over 2.5 million guests since the 1986 re-opening and offers a wide variety of entertainment and shows. The Kirby Center has been host to everything from cattle auctions and grand opera to ballet, ice skaters, and comedians. In addition to entertainment, the center plays host to weddings, parties, and graduations as well as religious ceremonies, political speeches, and meetings.
History: In 1937 the Comerford Movie Theater chain, with 45 locations across Pennsylvania and New York, planned a flagship theater to honor their founder, Michael E. Comerford. What was to later become the F. M. Kirby Center originally opened as the Comerford Movie Theater in 1938 with the movie “Alexander's Ragtime Band.” The grand art deco theater was the gem of the Comerford Movie Theater chain in both size and décor. The interior of the theater boasted five lavishly decorated lobbies with fluted columns and rose-glass colored mirrors. The crown jewel was the Giant Lavaliere chandelier, which is still on display in the theater today. A similar version may be found in the Empire State Building. At the time, the 2,000-seat theater was one of the largest in the Northeast and was ahead of its time in offering hearing aid-equipped seating, a nursery, and air-conditioning. An anti-trust lawsuit in 1949 forced the theater to change ownership, and the movie house continued to operate as the Paramount Theater for another 27 years.
Ultimately, in 1977 the theater ceased showing movies in response to market changes, which gravely affected several downtown movie houses. Spared from razing, the Paramount Theater continued to host touring musicians and showed closed-circuit television boxing matches. In 1978 a group of residents formed S.T.O.P., or Save The Old Paramount, and the theater was successfully added to the National Register of Historic Places. In 1985, a local businessman, Albert Boscov, stepped in to assemble a fundraising team, and close to $4 million was raised to purchase and restore the theater. The theater was renamed in honor of Fred M Kirby, a Wilkes-Barre philanthropist who was the creator of the “Five and Dime Store” concept and a co-founder of Woolworths. The newly restored theater opened in 1986 with the American Ballet Theater premier of “Celebration Tour,” featuring the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic.
Each year, the Kirby Center offers over 80 cultural and educational shows for free to promote accessibility and education for all people of the community. The Young People’s Theater is just one of these programs and is host to approximately 10,000 grade school and high school students annually. Young People’s Theater events include Story Pirates, in which professional actors create a sketch comedy musical production of a local child’s original story. The Arts Education Program offers free master classes and teacher-in-service workshops to local schools and businesses. The Kirby Center partners with over 45 social service organizations annually to offer 2,000 free tickets to the members of the community.
Past & Future Exhibits: The F. M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts offers over 125 events annually. Past musical visitors have included Ringo Starr, Patti LaBelle, Foreigner, and Bryan Adams among others. The Kirby Center also hosts Broadway shows, and in 2016 offered Mamma Mia and Annie. The center’s ongoing Film Series features viewings of some of the most critically acclaimed recent releases as well as classic films.
71 Public Square Wilkes-Barre, PA 18701, Phone: 570-823-4599
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