Lehigh Valley

History's Headlines: Allentown's Franklin Theatre

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - For Brandon Wunder, moving back to Allentown after six years in New York was coming home.

The 32-year-old video artist did not have to be told about the Cigar Factory neighborhood where his Alternative Gallery is located. Tilghman and Fourth streets were his roots. Filled with the television sets of the past on which Wunder does his creating, his office looks like a Sears and Roebuck TV showroom, circa 1956 to 1970.

That, among other reasons, is why Wunder felt it deeply when he heard about the shooting in the neighborhood recently that left two young men dead.

“Some of the people who work here actually saw this happen,” he said. “This is actually really a good neighborhood with good people in it. They don’t deserve this.”

As an artist, one of the things Wunder and a number of others in the local arts community have done has is hold Artsfest. Their sponsors this year included C.F. Martin Guitar and Amazon. According to Wunder, thanks to great weather and a good vibe, it was to break even for the first time.

“But more important we attracted 20,000 people over those three days,” he said.

Recently Wunder’s attention has been drawn to the Franklin Theatre, a 103-year-old neighborhood movie theater in the 400 block of Tilghman Street. Where some would see nothing but a beaten relic, Wunder and the people who work with him see a hidden community gem.

“I do think of it as a potential space where experimental art could be shown,” he said. “But more than that, it could be a community gathering space.”

Wunder admits his idea is somewhat visionary and could take time.

“There are a lot of great art venues in Allentown and the Lehigh Valley that do really great things,” he said, “but we think this is a niche we could fill.”

The Franklin made its debut to Allentown on Nov. 19, 1914.

“New Movie Theatre A Model In Its Line,” read the headline in the Morning Call.  “Allentown will have its eleventh moving picture theatre on or about Thanksgiving Day when the new “Franklin” on Tilghman Street near Fourth will open to the public…this theatre is one of the prettiest and safest moving picture theatres in the city.”

That Allentown already had 11 movie theaters by 1914 suggests that motion pictures, which had been created by Thomas Edison in 1893, were already part of the local scene. And in some ways the city was ahead of the rest of the country. In 1910, James Bowen’s Pergola theater at Ninth and Hamilton streets was the among the first movie theaters in the country to show color films on a regular basis.

The “spark plug” behind the creation of the Franklin was Frank F. Seiberling (1845-1932). A native of Schuylkill County, Seiberling had long been proprietor of the Forest Inn, located eight miles east of Weissport in Carbon County. With the death of his wife, Mary Ellen Weiss, in the early 1890s, he decided to sell the inn and move to Allentown. Here he invested in local real estate, apparently successfully. According to newspaper accounts he spent $12,000 on the Franklin’s construction.

On June 22, 1914, Seiberling purchased from the Rev. George M. Scheidy the lot at 421-429 Tilghman St. for $7,600. Shortly thereafter he contacted the contractors L.M. Kratz & Sons who began work on the project. According to the Morning Call, Seiberling was leaving nothing to chance in the Franklin’s construction. “Mr. Seiberling himself was on the job every day and supervised most of the work,” a newspaper article noted.

The Boyertown Theater fire of 1908 with its terrific loss of life was still a topic on everyone’s mind when it came to theaters. Seiberling told the press that the public need not worry.

“The rule of ‘Safety First’ has been carried out to the letter in the new theatre. There are seven fire exits and when necessary, the theatre can be emptied in less than a minute’s time,” he noted. The description of the theater noted that it had a frontage of 52 feet and was 86 feet deep. Seating capacity was 500.

“It is constructed of concrete foundations with brick sides, rear and front walls, laid in cement plaster and finished in white coating,” noted the newspapers. “The metal ceiling in the auditorium is 35 feet high and has a truss roof which is finished in herringbone concrete. The floor is concrete covered by wood.”

The interior decoration was described as “all in a pure white body with a pale green border, with the woodwork being all mahogany,”

On Thursday, Nov. 25, 1914 the Allentown Democrat featured a large ad about the Franklin.

“GRAND OPENING FRANKLIN MOVING PICTURE HOUSE 425-429 TILGHMAN ST, THURSDAY NOVEMBER 26TH 1914,” read the top line. Matinees would begin at 2 p.m., and the price of admission was to be set at 5 cents.

Seiberling was to own and run the Franklin from 1914 to 1923. That year it was purchased by a young immigrant to Allentown who was just breaking into the local real estate business: Nicola Iacocca, the father of Lido “Lee” Iacocca, later one of the best-known figures in the American automotive industry.

The elder Iacocca was to own the Franklin until 1928. In the late 1920s, the Franklin was purchased for an undisclosed price from Iacocca by Rubin Mainker.

Mainker was a contractor turned movie theater owner who at the same time was building Allentown’s 19th Street Theater and the Capitol Theater at 1020 Hamilton St., where the American Automobile Associations office building is today, as part of his Penn Theaters Corp.

In 1929, Mainker totally renovated the Franklin and installed the first sound movie system in both the 19th Street Theater and the Franklin. He went bankrupt in the Great Depression.

A Mrs. Minnie Friedman managed the theater in the 1930s and in the 1940s the manager was a Mrs. Minnie Levine. By that time the Franklin was a second run theater that was showing films at a cheaper price several weeks or months after they first were released. By the 1950s, television was taking a large cut in movie-going audiences. Neighborhood theaters like the Franklin were particularly hard hit.

On May 3, 1957, the theater was purchased by Allentown businessman Albert Moffa. He renamed the Franklin, the Jeanette, after his wife. Eventually, it suffered the fate of many small theaters that became outlets for pornographic films, which was the Franklin’s fate for two decades.

The Franklin/Jeanette has been closed for several years with various owners that have so far been unable to decide what to do with it. Wunder admits that the current owner may not be willing to go along with his concept for the Franklin, which is one of the few pre-World War I theaters left in the Lehigh Valley still capable of being used as a theater.

“But I am willing to take that risk,” he said.

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