HersheyArchives@30, Part 16: Building a Year-round Destination for Entertainment – Hershey Theatre
In 1915, Hershey had his architect, C. Emlen Urban, draw up plans for a new community building.
The building was to include a dining room, cafeteria, gymnasium, swimming pool, assembly rooms, a dormitory, a hospital, and two theaters: a small theater for local productions and a large, 2000 seat professional theater. Groundbreaking was scheduled for early 1916 but the arrival of World War I delayed the start of the project. The architect’s plans were put away and virtually forgotten.
As the 1930s Great Depression overwhelmed the country’s economy, Milton Hershey responded to the economic crisis by initiating a local building program, better known as the Great Building Campaign. Hershey’s building boom provided employment for over 600 workers who otherwise would have been unemployed and built many of this community’s most impressive structures.
The original 1915 plans for the Community Building and Theatre were dusted off and workers broke ground in 1928. Work was completed in 1933. Hershey dedicated its new Community Center and Theatre, during the town’s thirtieth anniversary celebration held September 1-4, 1933.
Hershey Theatre was built just about the time that New York City’s Radio City Music Hall was constructed. That performance hall’s stark art deco design stands in sharp contrast with Hershey Theatre’s interior. Since the Theatre was built from plans developed 18 years earlier, its design more closely resembles the opulence of early twentieth century theaters.
The grand lobby is a lavish entrance to a romantic, European space. The lobby floors are laid with polished Italian lava rock. Four different types of marble shape the walls and arches. Solid brass doors open to the inner foyer, with its intricate blue and gold mosaic ceiling, patterned after St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, Italy.
In the orchestra, or main level of the auditorium, the Theatre’s design theme is fully revealed as the grand style of Venice, Italy. The six-ton fire curtain features a painting of the city of Venice, with its Grand Canal slowly flowing past Doge’s Palace. The Theatre’s ceiling was specially constructed to create the illusion of being in an outside space.
The Theatre features a four-manual 78 rank Aeolian-Skinner concert organ. The organ’s more than 4,715 pipes and 25 bells are concealed behind the French doors of the front balconies facing either side of the stage.
To showcase the new Theatre, a series of concerts, lectures and performances were scheduled throughout the weekend. The celebration began with a grand organ dedication and recital on Friday, September 1.
The next day, Saturday, was the Community Theatre’s official opening day. The program, a popular movie with a vaudeville revue was offered three times during the day. The first movie shown at the Theatre was “Pilgrimage” with Henriette Crosman, Norman Foster, and Marion Nixon.
The vaudeville show featured nationally popular singers, comediennes, dancers and acrobatics. The show also featured “The Hersheyettes,” promoted as “a line of Beautiful Girls:” sixteen dancing girls performing precision routines.
Sunday, September 3, 1933, the celebration was a bit more serious with then Secretary of Agriculture (later Vice-President of the United States) Henry A. Wallace offering remarks at the official dedication ceremony. The Theatre was overflowing, necessitating loudspeakers to carry the message to the crowd outside. The gala weekend festivities concluded on Labor Day with three more movie/vaudeville performances.