The past and future of film in Ephrata
There are hidden gems throughout Lancaster County– spots only the locals really know about, places you don’t talk about because no one wants outside forces spoiling them. Inherently they are ours … as a community. However, sometimes people forget what is in their own backyard. One of these hidden gems needs a spotlight.
The original Main Theatre opened at 124 E. Main St. in Ephrata in 1938. At the time, the 750-seat movie house was a moderate and necessary form of entertainment. At the age of the Main’s construction the average national cost for a movie ticket was 25-cents and people lined up to see “The Adventures of Robin Hood” starring Errol Flynn. “The Life of Emile Zola” won best picture at the 10th annual Oscars ceremony. It is said the first movie shown at the Main (on Christmas Day) was “Just Around the Corner” starring Shirley Temple.
Prior to the Main, Ephrata had two theaters. The Grand Theater at 36-40 E. Main St. became the Roxy around 1933 and was destroyed by fire in the 1950s. After the fire the only theater in town was the Main and it stood, though barely, and operated until 1990.*
The original building housing the Main Theatre was eventually demolished. When the Brossman Business Complex was built plans called for a two screen theater on the building’s lower level. As an homage to the history of film entertainment in the borough one screen in what would become the Ephrata Main Theatre was named Roxy and the other named Grand.
I’d been to both Lily’s on Main and the Main Theatre many times before, but I had never visited both to catch dinner and a movie on the same night. So, I contacted owner/steward Steve Brown and made reservations for a 5:30 table at the restaurant and planned to catch a new run feature film with the family afterwards. Grabbing one of the iconic window-side tables overlooking downtown Ephrata, my wife and I started the evening by enjoying a flight of wine (of which, I have to say I enjoyed the 2012 La Forge Pinot Noir from Pays d’Oc, France the best). Our kids are little foodies and quickly dispatched of the children’s menu and opted for the crispy, fried duck tenders accompanied by an Asian barbecue sauce; the iced shrimp cocktail with local tomato gazpacho; and the too-tempting crab-stuffed soft pretzel with remoulade sauce. My wife and I opted for the lamb mixed grill: grilled loin chops and sausage, with Mediterranean quinoa salad, feta, and mint sauce; and the entrée sized warm spinach salad: baby spinach with Andouille sausage, Cipollini onions, portabella mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, a hard-cooked egg all dressed with Balsamic Vinaigrette and topped with goat cheese rolled in chopped pecans. We finished our meal in just enough time (and promised the kids desert at a future Lily’s visit) to head downstairs to catch a 7 p.m. movie (see this week’s Reel Reviews for more on the movie itself).
Walking into the Ephrata Main is like walking into a museum, not like a dusty, relic-filled hall of cavernous echoes, but more a showcase of the local history of film and its mark on Ephrata … starting with the marquee. The original marquee from the 1938 Main Theatre now marks the entrances to the lower level of the Brossman building. Designers took the actual box office and moved it inside. So, when walking up to the window to buy a ticket in 2014 moviegoers experience the same interaction as in 1938. The lighting sconces in the building are the originals. Glass cases present local memorabilia from all three theaters. An $8 admission gives visitors a seat for the movie as well as self-guided trip through the history of cinema in Ephrata. Brown, who took over operations of the theater after previous management decided not to extend their agreement, considered the move a natural thing to do – a way to provide a service to the community and maintain a part of its history.
“People often ask why I haven’t installed cup holders. These seats are the original seats,” said Brown. “In essence, all three movie theaters from Ephrata are here in one location. How many small towns can say anything like that?”
The Ephrata Main Theatre contains a lot of history, but it is not antiquated. As film was replaced by digital projection nationwide last year Brown was at a crossroads – either let the doors close on the Main once again or look for ways to advance the cinema into the future. He chose the latter and secured a $125,000 loan to install two new digital projectors. The result is a crystal clear image in a theater (or three if you’re following the history of all Ephrata movie houses), which once relied on the unpredictability of motion picture film, gone are the pops and scratches. The day of a vibrant movie experience in Ephrata has come. And even though the Ephrata Main’s past has been most of the focus thus far, there is one other thing that makes this theater truly unique to all theaters in the surrounding area — drink.
Alongside bottles of Coca-Cola and other soft drinks stands a selection of craft, bottled beers. I ordered a Magic Hat #9 and my jovial attendant aptly popped the top and handed me my beer. I ordered a drink for the kids and we headed into the same theater. The Ephrata Main is the only theater in the immediate area able to sell alcohol in a non-split environment, meaning there isn’t one screen dedicated to persons over the age of 21 (because Lily’s has a restaurant license not a tavern license).
“Clearly, we follow all the same rules that apply in the restaurant. We’re constantly training and recertifying. We ID everyone,” said Brown.
The Ephrata Main Theatre serves beer, wine and even cocktails. Some showings are even accompanied by themed drinks. With “42,” the story of Jackie Robinson as a Brooklyn Dodger during the years 1945 to ‘47, the theater offered Pabst Blue Ribbon pounder cans. During showings of Harry Potter movies fans of legal age could consume alcoholic butter beer. And of course what goes better with a screening of “Sex and the City” than a cosmopolitan?
“I think a lot of people are confused because you can’t sit down and eat dinner in the theater. We want you to come and eat at Lily’s before or after,” said Brown.
A ticket to the current day’s show gives diners 10 percent off their dinner check. This discount does not apply only to movies. Ticket stubs from concerts at the Main and performances at EPAC also provide a 10 percent discount at Lily’s.
Through everything I experienced at dinner and a movie at Lily’s and the Ephrata Main what I appreciated most was the popcorn … because it was free. To thank me and any other veteran for service to our country the Ephrata Main provides a free medium popcorn through the county-wide Thank-A-Vet program. To get this discount visit lancasterdeeds.com/vet_discount_program/.
With my popcorn and beer I kicked back and enjoyed “X-Men: Days of Future Past” with the entire family. It doesn’t get much better. The Ephrata Main is not only providing entertainment, but also safeguarding an historic part of the town’s past.
“The community has to be the one who dictates whether a theater stays alive,” said Brown. “We want to keep the history alive. There should be an awful lot of pride in this theater.”
* This history of theaters in Ephrata is what the author could compile from initial research. We would love to hear of any memories, facts or details pertaining to Ephrata’s movie theater history. Please contact Michael C. Upton at SomeProMCU@gmail.com to share.