Living Large in Northeast Ohio
March 5, 2016
By: Mark G. Mangie
This magnificent building is rooted in a history that while acknowledged in the area…there is a state historical marker in front…is amazingly not in the area’s general consciousness. It was built as a memorial to Sam Warner, one of the original Warner Brothers, in 1931. It was built there because the Warner family was from Youngstown.
The Wonsal or Wonskolaser family immigrated to the United States from Poland in 1889 landing in Youngstown in 1896. They alternatively operated a shoe repair business, a meat and grocery business, and a bicycle shop. Their business was located in downtown Youngstown less than a block away from the DeYor Performing Arts Center. The family moved around over the years living in Smokey Hollow, Downtown, and in Brier Hill. The children attended the Rayen School.
Warner Brothers…you know the movie company…got its start in Youngstown in very early 1900’s when the family, spearheaded by Sam Warner, bought a projector, a portable screen and a used copy of the Great Train Robbery and traveled northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania showing silent movies in tents and storefronts. Sam’s movie experience? He worked as a projectionist at Idora Park and Cedar Point.
When traveling around got to be a bit much, they decided to open a permanent theater. New Castle, PA., had no competition and a willing audience. In 1907 the Cascade Theater opened on Mill Street, a block off of the main drag. The theater was actually three theaters. Two theaters on the first floor were outfitted for films. An upstairs theater was used for vaudeville. The movies ran continuously all day showing films that were about 20 minutes long.
The Warner’s operated their theater in New Castle from February to November, 1907. It didn’t take them long to decide that the money in movies was in film distribution and production rather than operating movie theaters. So they sold the theater to the Robbins family…shirttail relations of the Warner family…and moved to Pittsburgh founding the Duquesne Amusement Company. From Pittsburgh they went to New York and ultimately to California. Along the way the filed for bankruptcy five times.
Warner Brothers became an entertainment powerhouse when it produced the Jazz Singer, the first talking movie, in 1927. But Sam Warner didn’t live to see the success. The family first intended to build a theater honoring Sam in New Castle but land prices made it prohibitive. They moved the project to Youngstown, their hometown, and built a $1.5 million movie palace…the first in the area built specifically for movies. The rest is history. The theater was rescued from the wrecking ball in 1968 by a generous donation from the Powers Family and has been under the care of the Youngstown Symphony Society to this day.
Back across the state line in New Castle, the building in which the Cascade Theater was located was still standing. Jerry Kern…a former marine and real estate entrepreneur who has a passion for preserving important parts of history…decided this was a building worth saving. To that end, twenty years ago he formed a 501-C-3 charitable organization whose goal was to restore the Cascade Theater and operate the site as a museum dedicated to film. He called it The Historic Warner Cascade Theater Museum. It has been a long slog.
Dedication and perseverance got the project through the rough times. Warner Brothers provided the initial grant to get the project going with matching funds from Lawrence County. Kickstarter, an internet site that allows people to raise money for special projects, provided the mechanism for donations.
In conjunction with the City of New Castle, Lawrence County, and the State of Pennsylvania, Jerry was able to work through a series of grants that ultimately led the way for the revitalization of downtown New Castle. It was a bittersweet effort. The Museum was used as the foundation for tens of millions of dollars in grant money from the state. The design of the New Castle revitalization project was made to complement the museum. The final draw of $5 million was to go to the Museum directly to do the actual renovation. The city reneged and used the money for other purposes.
The theater itself was incorporated into a privately developed construction project called Riverplex located along Neshannock Creek. During the financial crises of 2008 the development filed for bankruptcy. A new group purchased the Riverplex in 2012 for a dollar. That group in turn leased to the Theater Museum that part of the building that was the Cascade Theater for $1.00/year for 10 years plus common area charges and taxes. One stipulation…it had to be up and running by December 31, 2015. Since then it has been a race to the finish line.
The museum is the anchor for the Riverplex complex which currently includes The Commonwealth, a classy gastro pub, and Two Rivers Artisan Coffee. An additional restaurant will be opened on the second floor (Previously the popular Mill Street Grill), as well as retail and office space.
Cass Warner Sperling, granddaughter of Harry Warner, sits on the Advisory Board for the Museum. Robert (Bob) Vargo is project consultant. A former teacher and drama coach at Wilson High School in Youngstown as well as former director of the Youngstown Playhouse, his reputation proceeds him in the best of ways. He operates his own production company with contacts throughout the country. His knowledge of theater history, business sense, and innate sense of design serve this project well.
Plans for the theater/museum include film festivals, displays of movie memorabilia relating to the Warner Brothers and filmmaking generally, plus workshops for students of the film and video arts. There is little doubt it will evolve into the major tourist attraction in Lawrence County. Bob and Jerry have established contacts with various educational institutions around the area including Slippery Rock and Grove City Colleges. In addition, they are actively pursuing permanent and temporary exhibits for the space.
Nothing good comes easy. The Historic Warner Cascade Theatre Museum project is no exception. As you read this article the deadline for opening the facility will have passed. You can bet that this past New Year’s Eve, the lights will be on reminding this area of its strong ties to Hollywood and the entertainment industry.
18 Mill Street
New Castle, PA.
THE HISTORIC WARNER
CASCADE THEATRE MUSEUM
"Hollywood on the Neshannock"
Those of us that live in the Mahoning Valley know that no matter what is happening in the world, more likely than not there is a Youngstown connection. That is particularly true with the entertainment industry. If you are over 60 years old you would remember the Warner Theater. If you under 50, you would know it as Powers Auditorium. If you are under 30…it is the DeYor Performing Arts Center.