BEANERY ONLINE LITERARY MAGAZINE
SCOTTDALE’S LITTLE OFF-BROADWAY THEATER:
THE RIGHT PLACE TO BE (in Pennsylvania)
“Hello! Geyer Performing Arts Center. May I help you…yes, we have a few tickets left for the show. Where would you like to sit?”
It’s shortly after nine in the morning, the fax line is ringing and the door chime lets us know someone has arrived. While the theater manager attends to box office, I tackle a variety of duties for the day. These may include writing press releases, preparing a media packet, stuffing and addressing envelopes to send out fundraising letters or monthly show schedules. A program flyer I compiled for the 4th Annual Battle of the Bands, including copy, photos, ads and layout was a first for me!
When an acting group rehearses, voices and music filter upstairs from the stage, as do the sounds of prop people working on sets and lighting. The second floor office is generally quiet, but sometimes the hectic daily activities can raise one’s blood pressure. Like the birds that sometimes fly into the theater creating a fluttered panic until we can shoo them out through an open window, the unexpected keeps us motivated.
The Geyer Performing Arts Center, located at 111 Pittsburgh St., Scottdale, Pennsylvania, fifty miles southeast of Pittsburgh, is over a century old. The theater has changed names and owners several times, presenting a patchwork history which began at the turn of the century in 1900. Originally opened as the Geyer Opera House, it was built by hotel proprietor, Andrew Geyer, and hosted several well-known celebrities.
Black-and-white. Flashing-strobe-like. Silent film actress Lillian Peacock, (October 23, 1889-August 19, 1918) left small town Scottdale to star in over one hundred silent films between 1915 and 1918. The young woman, about whose personal life little is known, faced an untimely and early death at age twenty-eight. Peacock’s internal injuries, caused when she leapt from one automobile to another while filming a comedy scene, eventually lead to her death. At some time in her career, Lillian M. Webb changed her name to Lillian Peacock and moved with her parents from Scottdale to Los Angeles, California where she lived for eleven years. She worked for several motion picture studios and it is believed, at some point, she performed on the stage of Scottdale’s Little “Off-Broadway” Theater.
The Scottdale Theater Company assumed ownership by 1912 and theater venues included early vaudeville acts and a variety of live performances. In the early 1940’s hard financial times hit and although used mainly for movies, it had the distinction of being one of the first to be equipped with the new Vitaphone system, enabling the showing of “talking pictures.” It also hosted community meetings and public events, as it does today. Then, once again, it changed names, becoming the Strand Theater.
The still-struggling theater finally reverted ownership to its former manager, John C. Bixler and served as a multi-function facility, operating primarily as a movie theater until 1959. The building closed in 1969 except for special use purposes, and finally shut its doors in 1971. After sitting empty for sixteen years, Scottdale Showtime, Inc., a non-profit organization, bought the 310-seat structure in 1987 and completely refurbished it.
Today it is still owned by a non-profit organization, the Geyer Performing Arts Center, which took over in 2005. Marilyn “Tottie” Kiefer, mother of attorney Karen Kiefer, was among some of the many original supporters of the Geyer’s revitalization. Kept running by the Geyer Board of Directors, a host of volunteers, office staff, a dedicated theater manager, private donations, grants and fundraisers, the Geyer remains, along with the West Overton Museum, one of the few cultural outlets in the Scottdale Borough to have a tangible link to a historical past. Linking past to present, and its movie-showing tradition, GPAC acquired a 28 X 28 foot movie screen the summer of 2008, and hopes to eventually offer showings to the public.
The Geyer marked its 20th Anniversary in 2008 with a year-long celebration and a special program in August: Broadway Thru the Years (1988-2008), a song and dance review of musicals performed over the last two decades. To commemorate the event, the Geyer Board wanted wooden plaques illustrating all the musicals that graced the theater’s stage. My artistic talent got put to use immediately, making these plaques.
Just inside the theater lobby, to the right, hang the forty-three hand-painted plaques commemorating the forty plus musicals. The theater’s color theme, off-white, black, burgundy and gold, were considered when painting. The plaques have a white base and are gold-edged. All are uniquely designed and color coordinated to the respective musical and mounted against a burgundy background. The arrangement leaves room so plaques can be added for future musicals.
This lasting contribution to the theater took three months to complete, but I was delighted because of the artistic nature of the project. Pleased to use my creative talents, the Geyer provides a bi-level outlet for my artistic and writing skills. Future theater-goers will see my art work displayed, a living legacy long after I’m dust and ashes.
Most buildings with a hundred year history, also claim ghost haunting stories. Although noises, odd feelings and strange events may occur, the most popular “theater haunting” at the Geyer involves tales of former owner, John C. Bixler.
His involvement with the theater continued after it closed in 1971. Bixler lived in the upstairs apartment above the lobby until his death. A long, hardwood-floor hallway branches off to a fully equipped kitchen and four other rooms. The largest room, above the marquee and fronting the theater, is still known as the “apartment.” After dedicating some seventy years to the theater, many believe his ghost still hovers periodically to oversee operations.
Workers and volunteers have often reported eerie feelings and strange happenings. Beneath the stage and auditorium is an earthen basement tagged as the “dungeon.” In the summer of 1990, several teens, who were volunteering, were unnerved by what they felt were encounters with the ghost of someone who died on the stage years ago. One teen claimed to hear someone breathing and ran terrified from the dungeon.
A technical director recalls his experience involving the specter of a young girl in the balcony, who once created havoc in the lighting booth during a production. A sudden power surge, followed by a puff of smoke, shook him up. Another incident occurred late night while he was cleaning. He heard someone say “Nice job, William.” No one was there.
During March 2008, two groups of paranormal investigators set up equipment and spent time at the Geyer. The Westmoreland Paranormal Investigative Society and the Paranormal Society of Indiana University of Pennsylvania came together to discuss their findings. Amazingly, both shared similar experiences. Confirming reports similar to those above, both groups felt uneasy and sensed a presence when walking the upstairs hall behind the balcony, and they also heard voices in the basement. Spirits and energy orbs when manifesting themselves, are reported to pull energy from electrical sources and batteries. Both groups noted charged batteries died very quickly, something those of us working in the second floor office can attest to!
While these paranormal investigators couldn’t absolutely prove GPAC is inhabited by ghosts, they can’t definitively factor out their existence in the building. They concluded perhaps they had been present during nights when the spirits were less active.
Wear and tear are natural occurrences for a building of such longevity. Heating and air conditioning systems, electrical and light systems, and stage rigging need repaired. Maintenance requires time and money. The theater depends heavily on volunteers and any outside help it can reasonably acquire. So this winter, when snowflakes fell and cold winds whistled round the eaves, the grande dame of Scottdale received an Extreme Makeover: Theater Edition! With the excellent help of the Greensburg Department of Corrections, the theater was refurbished from balcony to basement!
However, the most important purpose of Scottdale’s Little “Off-Broadway” Theater is to provide fun and affordable family entertainment. Members of the AAFC (Actors and Artists of Fayette County), GPAC, and many independent performers rehearse several weeks prior to performances. Geyer Board of Directors president Brad Geyer, fourth generation great nephew to founder Andrew Geyer, smiles and laughs, “Theater is cheaper than therapy. People come to the theater to escape the stresses and hectic pace of everyday life.”
Theater is therapy for the actors/actresses who participate as well as the audience who comes to watch. People enjoy different types of entertainment, and the Geyer strives to offer something appealing to everyone’s taste: comedy, drama, musicals, a cabaret, mystery dinner theater, concerts, charity benefits and an annual Battle of the Bands featuring a competition between local rock bands. New acts, individual or group, are encouraged to bring their talents to the theater. This fall a wedding will be performed on stage, a Geyer first! The Geyer Gala held in the fall and the “Tottie” Awards (GPAC’S unique equivalent of the Academy Awards) are two of the most glamorous events of the year. A red carpet is rolled out and a long white limo drives up with participants arriving in evening gowns and tux. Winners are presented with pewter trophies in fifteen respective categories and it’s a fun evening for everyone!
The opportunities provided by the Geyer have proven to be the best and most satisfying in my life. Every day presents a challenge and something new, fresh and exciting always occurs. Sometimes I balance on the razor edge of hectic, but the theater is the right place to be, the right place for me!
“Welcome to the Geyer Performing Arts Center. We hope you enjoy this evening’s entertainment . . . and come back often!”
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