Catasauqua Press

Wednesday, November 20, 2019
PRESS PHOTO BY PAUL WILLISTEINCapacity audience for opening night of renovated Civic Theatre of Allentown, where “Billy Elliot” musical continues through Oct. 28. PRESS PHOTO BY PAUL WILLISTEINCapacity audience for opening night of renovated Civic Theatre of Allentown, where “Billy Elliot” musical continues through Oct. 28.
PRESS PHOTO BY PAUL WILLISTEINRestored dome in ceiling of renovated 19th Street Theatre, Allentown. PRESS PHOTO BY PAUL WILLISTEINRestored dome in ceiling of renovated 19th Street Theatre, Allentown.

Renovated 19th St. Theatre is more than a building

Friday, October 26, 2018 by STEPHEN ALTHOUSE Special to The Press in Focus

The year is 1928. The Roaring ‘20s are nearing their conclusion and the Great Depression’s desolation awaits.

In West Allentown, a stately, regal and artful movie palace opens known as the Nineteenth Street Theatre.

Ninety years later, years of planning, months of renovations and $5.5 million have created a refurbished Civic Theatre of Allentown, which officially reopened during a ribbon-cutting ceremony Oct. 11.

“This is more than a building,” says Maria DeFebo-Edwards, president of Civic Theatre’s board of directors. “... It’s almost like a sacred ground for some people.”

The venerable Civic Theatre began its run at the building in 1957 and it was a move that has paid major dividends. The organization has played a notable part in Allentown’s history and has been a constant companion to many people throughout the region. Annually, about 45,000 tickets are sold, and nearly 5,300 children from 12 elementary schools participate in Civic’s art and literacy programs.

“It’s a real gem in the Lehigh Valley and it has created so many memories,” DeFebo-Edwards says.

The memories may exist, but it still wasn’t an easy decision to reinvest in the facility. Polishing the stately Civic Theatre was “a giant leap of faith,” DeFebo-Edwards says.

While the Nineteenth Street Theatre was structurally-sound, time had stolen some of the building’s luster. In order to confidently move forward, leadership decided a restoration was essential.

The premise for “The Next Act: Setting the Stage for the Future” Capital Campaign was simple: Restore the proud building to its original splendor as a focal point of art deco architecture, and as a cultural hub for the Allentown West End Theatre District it calls home.

Civic’s leadership settled on a strategy to invest $5.5 million. They were fortunate to receive a significant $2 million Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) grant from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, leaving them with the task of raising $3.5 million.

The fundraising is taking place in three phrases. The first commenced in spring 2017 and ended that November with a $1.5 million mark. The second, taking place this year and ending in September, was expected to garner $3.5 million. The final portion takes place during a 10-month period with a goal of about $500,000.

“There’s a new box office, a complete renovation of the auditorium and lobby,” DeFebo-Edwards says.

In addition, improved access, stage and backstage areas have been completed. For those who pay attention to details, you’ll notice the wall frescoes and detailed ceiling dome have been refurbished. There are also additional comforts for the body and sound for the senses. A renovation of the second-floor classroom and rehearsal space awaits.

“We have new seats and a new sound system,” says DeFebo-Edwards. Collectively, all the updates will enhance the theater-goers’ experience, she notes.

For all the updates, the Civic Theatre is more than a building. It’s an attitude about the arts. The arts, DeFebo-Edwards says, matter.

“We all believe so deeply in the arts,” she says. “... It’s a labor of love for everyone involved.”

The non-profit organization presents locally-produced theater, shows independent films and provides performing arts instruction to thousands of children. That instruction is particularly important, as Civic officials say they want to see the letter “A” added to the traditional science and technology curriculum of STEM.

Established more than a half century ago, Civic Theatre’s school program provides training in the theater arts. That training helps youngsters develop skills in teamwork, creativity, problem-solving and accountability.

“I really see Civic as partners supporting one another,” DeFebo-Edwards says.