Fires, Floods, and Phantoms: Clifton 5

Fires%2C+Floods%2C+and+Phantoms%3A+Clifton+5

Kiera Lindner, Staff Writer

The life and times of the Clifton 5 (the movie theatre in local downtown Huntingdon) play out like one of the movies we might go to see there today. The site it stands on has seen everything from rampaging fires to bomb threats to traveling theatre performances to floods to grand re-openings pulling in throngs of people to meetings of secret societies. Behind its recently revamped art-deco marquee thrums a history so potent some say it still walks among us; ghost sightings at the Clifton 5 are (perhaps unsurprisingly, given its history) so frequent that ghost hunters have been called in from across the state. Its vibrant, stirring past, hidden just behind its vintage 20th-century theater decor, all but begs to be told.

Back in the late 1800s, the site that would one day house the Clifton 5 – Washington Street between 7th and 8th Streets – was Huntingdon’s Opera House, an opulent brick structure costing $46,000, (approximately $1,250,000.00 in 2018 dollars). The building was so big that its builders, Frank Hefright and Joseph Watson, had to petition the borough council to raise the level of Washington Street up by four feet to accommodate it! Taking up the whole block, the Opera House was described as “a beautiful, substantial structure” by local newspaper The Huntingdon Globe, “with a 30×50 foot stage, which can be separated from the auditorium by a large asbestus [sic] curtain.” With a total capacity of 12,000, (800 in the main auditorium and 400 in the front and side galleries) one can only imagine the crowds it must have drawn in.

The Opera House stood for 18 years, from 1883 to 1901 (with only a brief pause for a minor fire in the first year of its opening), and its electric chandelier shone incandescently over audiences of up to 1,500 enjoying popular plays with subjects such as New York and the Wild West. Five local businesses plied their trade and multiple fraternal organizations, including Freemasons, met within its walls. This arguably made Washington Street a cultural and business center of the town, according to local historian Nancy S. Shedd. Unfortunately, this was not to last. The theater portion of the Opera House building suffered financial struggles; the manager struggled to attract traveling shows, and as Huntingdon County residents began to move out west, patronage declined further. It went through a series of openings, closings, and changes in ownership.

Finally, the Opera House came to a sad end on December 19th, 1901: the biggest fire “in the history of the borough,” according to The Huntingdon Globe, all but razed it to the ground. The origin of the fire is unknown, but the same newspaper reported that “some attribute it to crossed electric light wires, others to defective flues, while the impression gains credence among some that it was due to an overheated stove in one of the dressing rooms.” The fire was put out about four hours after it started, but it was too late for the building. Thankfully, there were no fatalities; however, local historian Elizabeth Morningstar recounted that some of the fraternal organizations “were running in there [the Opera House] when the fire was going on, pulling out all their secret stuff,” willing to risk their lives in the face of an inferno to keep their secrets safe. Estimates of losses ranged from $87,000-$150,000, according to contemporary newspapers – far more than the $46,000 Opera House had cost to build.

In the place of the Opera House, or with the remains of the building, a smaller structure was built: a precursor to our Clifton in both name and body, known as the Gamble Theatre after its owner, Andy Gamble from Altoona. According to Morningstar, it was constructed in such a way that both the new technology of talkies (the first movies with sound, which at the Gamble were usually short twenty-minute black-and-white flicks on the big screen) and traveling shows could be shown at the same time, during that period of “theatre transition” that was occurring leading up to the 1920s. This transition included the decline of traveling companies of live performers, as it was becoming cheaper to make a Hollywood film. However, Broadway shows continued to come through Huntingdon until the 1950s.

The Gamble Theatre lasted from 1922 until May 21, 1923, when it was sold and remodeled; the last movie shown under a marquee with Gamble’s name was The Delicious Little Devil, starring Mae Murray and Rodolph Valentino. When the theatre had its grand (re-)opening on December 3 of the same year, it was known as the Clifton Theatre and owned by the Blackford family, who had named it in honor of their son, Clifton. The doors opened at 6:15 PM and for 15 to 35 cents, in the words of a local newspaper, the “throngs wait[ing] for the opening” could see the movie Hollywood, an aptly-named flick starring “20 real stars and 30 screen celebrities.” The local newspaper described the art deco-style Clifton Theatre of 1923 as “a wonderfully pretty place, the color scheme harmonizing, [sic] very beautifully and the commodious auditorium and spacious lobbies prove the fact that there is nothing better even in large cities.” The Municipal Band played at the packed opening, each lady was presented with a rose, and every person upon leaving the theatre was given a booklet telling of the construction of the theatre and the week’s program.

Unfortunately, this lovely interior of the new Clifton Theatre was not to last, either: another fire destroyed the interior of the building in 1930. That same year, traveling filmmaker Don Newman would come to Huntingdon with a stock script and film the two-reel movie Huntingdon’s Hero, starring Huntingdon locals and produced in Huntingdon County; this film was recently rediscovered in a closet and premiered at the Clifton 5. It took a year to fix the interior of the theater, at which point it was decorated in the then-contemporary style that can still be seen at our Clifton 5 today. Ownership changed again; in the mid-20th century the theatre belonged to a Mr. Jim Kalos and was known as the “Kalos Clifton.” Mr. Kalos, from Pittsburgh, had a “J.C. Night” for Juniata College students every Tuesday, selling students seats for only 50 cents. During the late 60s, Mr. Kalos and his Clifton were evacuated due to a phoned-in bomb threat from a perpetrator who later called back, confessed, and admitted it had been a joke. In the early 70s, he had to have the police rush to the theatre during its Thanksgiving midnight showing of Night of the Living Dead, because “the crowd was so big they started to rock the ticket booth” (according to a November 14, 1998 article in the Daily News). Finally, during the Flood of 1972, the Kalos Clifton’s theatre was flooded up to rows 15-16!

Thirty-six years ago, the Kalos Clifton changed hands again: it was bought by current owner Dave Peoples, who twenty years back connected the Clifton to the building next door and put in two more auditoriums. Since the total number of theatres at the Clifton was now five, he changed the name to the Clifton 5, as it has been called for the last twenty years – although legally, its official name is the Huntingdon Cinema. “It was an old, old theater when we bought it. Roof leaked, seats needed replaced, we had carbon-arc projectors” – an old kind of film projector in which two welding rods inside a vacuum globe had a current run through them to create sparks that would put out enough light to project onto the screen. The theatre still used 35mm film: in fact, until the digital age kicked in, the Clifton continued to use 35mm film, and Mr. Peoples contends that “had we stayed with 35mm film, I’d be retired by now.”

Mr. Peoples continues to hold community events at the Clifton 5, such as “Mommy Matinees” on Monday mornings, where a mom’s tickets are $5 and an under-12 kid’s ticket is free, the volume is lowered, the lights are up, and young kids can enjoy films without some of the behavioral restrictions they’d have to deal with in movie theaters at other times. Birthday parties, fundraisers, and school events all use the Clifton 5 for their events. In addition, the Clifton 5 hosts the popular Buskopolis Festival of Cinematic Oddities, run by a Mr. Tim Busko. This year’s Festival had 200 submissions that Mr. Busko cut down to 47 strange and unique selections from around the world, some of which featured post-film Q&As with their filmmakers or introductions by beloved Juniata College professor Peter Goldstein.

But the past is never far away at the Clifton 5; in fact, it may be closer than some of us think. So many people have had ghostly experiences at the site of the Clifton 5 that ghost-hunting teams have even been brought in, such as the City Lights Paranormal Society from Philadelphia. According to Mr. Peoples, one of the ghost-hunting teams received “responses” when they asked whether the spirits there were those of an old coal furnace-firer of Washington Street and one of the previous owners. Additionally, Mr. Peoples contends that a fire in the two side auditoriums killed a man and his dog back in the day, and that they could possibly be haunting the theatre. (Listen for ghostly woofs next time you go to the Clifton 5!) One employee Mr. Peoples calls “sensitive to that kind of stuff” has seen people walking around the theatre after everyone is gone; “I’ve been there thirty-six years and nothing bad’s ever happened, but I’ve noticed some people get creeped out by what they’ve seen happen,” he says. Accordingly, the Clifton 5 is considering starting ghost tours in the future.

The future of the Clifton 5 is also important to Mr. Peoples, who worries that the rise of streaming media will not only impact his beloved theatre, but also both the movie industry itself and the character of society. “What they don’t realize is that when you hear a buzz about a movie coming out and how many people saw it, that’s not coming from streaming, that’s coming from theatres. If they lose that, the value of the movie degrades too… People are social animals, but [studios] are trying to get everybody to go home and stream by themselves. You can get everything delivered, they’re trying to fix it so you don’t have to go out of the house to do anything. I find that disturbing, because that gets you from going out and being able to talk and interact with people.”

With all its rich history and potential for the future, the Clifton 5 still has a key role to play in this community and the lives of the people in it.

 

 

BEHIND THE STORY

  1. Why did we report on this?
    • Kiera decided to write this story because the Clifton 5 is something that lots of students know, and she feels that knowing its history would help students understand the town better.
  2. How did we get the information to report on this?
    • Kiera found information through HCHS, as well as by speaking with Elizabeth Morningstar and Dave Peoples (the current owner of the Clifton).
  3. How can the reader get more information on the topic covered?
    • Readers can get in contact with Kiera with questions and she will pass them on to the appropriate source!
  4. Did we miss something?
    • Let us know! Contact Kiera ([email protected]) with any further questions, comments, or concerns about this article, or to suggest further articles about this topic.