State College Magazine

State College Movie Theaters:

An incomplete and personal history

Inside the Cathaum Theatre – circa 1938

I saw my first movie in State College 50 years ago this month, after arriving for my first professorial position post-Ph.D. The history of the community’s theaters is as varied as the history of our retail shops, restaurants, zoning and parking schemes. Even upon my arrival, movie theaters had existed in the community for more than 60 years. The concentration of theaters downtown would diminish over time and eventually disappear; by 2011, all efforts to bring a venue for first-run films back to downtown were extinguished. More on that later.

The Nittany Theatre on Allen Street, now the site of a bank, opened in 1912. It has the distinction after it reopened under the name Garden Theatre in 1973 of showing “Deep Throat” to thousands of residents and Penn State students. The most lavish of the town’s theaters was undoubtedly the Cathaum, which opened in 1926 with seating for more than one thousand. Five decades later the theater was closed and eventually partitioned into pieces. For a while, if you can believe it, it housed offices for graduate students in the English department. If you know where to look, you can still find the spectacular ceiling of the original theater.


The Cathaum Theatre

Twelve years after the opening of the Cathaum, in 1938, the State Theatre opened down the block on College Avenue. This was the venue in 1973 for a film that captured the nation’s attention: “The Exorcist.” My wife and I were among the thousands in the community who dutifully waited in lines backed up to the Corner Room to experience the movie. The buzz was that people sometimes had spells or even fainted during the movie. I confidently told my wife not to worry. But halfway through the movie, just as the head of the young girl being exorcised began to turn, the packed theater got hot and sticky and I felt lightheaded. I couldn’t sleep in the dark for two weeks. The State Theatre is now part of a community-run venture but no longer shows first-run films.

After World War II, with the proliferation of automobiles, drive-ins, all now abandoned, popped up around the county, including The Starlite on Benner Pike in 1950, the Nittany Lion Drive-in in Boalsburg and the Temple Drive-in on North Atherton.

Nittany Theatre and Inn

Before there were VHS machines, DVDs, and successor home viewing opportunities for movies, a slew of theaters opened downtown in the 1970s featuring X-rated movies, among them The Flick, The Screening Room, and The Movies. It is hard to believe in 2023, but X-rated films were also shown in the Sparks Building on campus in the 1970s. Run by a student organization, they were billed as “Two Bit Flicks,” with posters that featured the second and third letters in the word “flick” run together in a way that made it read as another word.

New multi-screen complexes eventually opened on the edges of State College, one beyond the Nittany Mall and one near Lowe’s on the north end of town. Between them they boast 21 screens. When Covid arrived, ticket sales plummeted, and those theaters are now doing their best to survive in a post-Covid environment.

After all of the movie theaters downtown closed, there was a strong desire in 2010 among community leaders to rejuvenate declining retail spaces, create more opportunities to bring students into the downtown for shopping and eating, slow the growth of student apartment developments, and create more living possibilities for permanent adult residents. Part of this plan included attracting a new movie theater to the downtown. The new Fraser Center was to be the core of this evolution.

The university was pleased to collaborate on a plan that would include a seven-theater cinema, including an IMAX, in this complex. A marketability study paid for by a private donor was conducted to support the idea of the IMAX. The theaters would be used as desperately needed state-of-the-art classrooms during the day, with outlets for laptops and satellite connections for instruction and hybrid learning. First-run films were to be shown at night and during the weekends and there would be upscale eating-on-the-go opportunities.

It was an exciting idea. A highly reputable movie company was engaged. But within days after Penn State faced its November 2011 crisis, it all fell apart. The two theater complexes on the edges of town used the confusion to place full-page ads denouncing the idea of a downtown theatre. Wishing to avoid any further controversy, Penn State’s trustees and new administration succumbed to the pressure, withdrew support of the project, and the entire plan disintegrated.

The future of movie-going in State College will undoubtedly be challenging, driven by the ability to view films at home. I still value the experience of the big screen and will continue to be a loyal theatergoer. If there are enough like-minded patrons, perhaps we will have viable theaters for years to come.

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