The Auburn Schines and Cinema in Downtown Auburn

The 1930s saw an economic depression that had a firm grip on the nation, with no real solution in sight. The local movie theater had become a beacon of moderate entertainment in America. At that time, the Schine Brothers, Louis and Myer, owned the Palace Theater on Genesee Street and the Jefferson Theater on State Street, not far from the Auburn Prison. Both popular on all accounts.

By then the Schine Brothers capably managed around 150 theaters in five states. The Schines were becoming one of the largest independent theater chains in the country. The brothers had the wherewithal to create something both functional and pleasing to an American public who wanted a place they could go to be entertained for a few hours; that wanted a place to forget about their troubles and dream of better days.

Construction and Opening

There were rumors that a new Schine Theater was coming for years and it was announced in the January 29, 1938 issue of Film Daily that, “Contract for the building of the New Auburn Theater, an 1800-seater for the Schine Theater Enterprises at Auburn, has been awarded to Associated Constructors, Inc., of Philadelphia. John Eberson is house architect.”

Construction started immediately at the 16 South Street site. It was cleared for building by February 15th. The building went up at a frantic rate. The foundation was laid by March 15th and steel beams were seen in early April. By June 15th, the main structure was framed in steel beams and concrete forms hinted at the columns and walls taking shape. The steep balcony being created could be clearly seen by this time.

Architect Eberson was known as the “Frank Lloyd Wright of theater design. By then, he had built or redesigned many Schine theaters across the northeast, varying designs to suit size and Schine profitability. He segued effortlessly and almost seamlessly from the beautiful outdoor garden atmospherics and classic palace designs to the show-stopping art deco enchantment that would come to be enjoyed at the Schine Auburn.

No one was better at creating theaters with popular appeal than Eberson. By the mid-1930’s he melded the ornate atmospheric theater into the popular yet waning art deco style by creating a unique outer space atmospheric. This new design idea may have had its roots in the then changing audience appeal for films like Flash Gordon, the exploits of Buck Rogers, and others like Dick Tracy. As well, the massive success that Schine business partners Universal Studios had made with “Frankenstein”, “The Invisible Man” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” surely added a built-in audience appeal to the style of the Auburn Schine.

The foyer and lobby light fixtures are shaped like shooting stars and comets to better carry out the outer space motif. The lobby area is futuristic, with a classic 1930s perspective with sculpted walls and entranceways. The concession stand was low and sleek, accented with loads of chrome. Eberson used the requisite Schine red mixed with vibrant colors in running bands and stripes on the ceiling and an auditorium where stars and planets floated in a deep space sky.

All the walls had a three-dimensional appearance due to the use of a mottling technique, which was layered, then rag rolled in midnight blue and deep purple to achieve Eberson’s desired effect. The ceiling is uniquely shaped in a scalloped shell design that moves in tiers to the balcony area. The matching chandeliers on either side of the auditorium were an impressive sight. Opal multicolored glass formed the huge star shape from which double comet tails arched gracefully from each side of the star. The tails were deep coves in the plaster sky, softly back lit for a dramatic effect.

The outside of the building looked nearly complete by August of 1938, set to join the two others. The Palace Theater originally opened during film’s infancy by George H. Morgan, as the Morgan Theater. It was Auburn’s first theater built for the movies. The Jefferson Theater, built by Thomas Mott Osborne, opened not too long after as a legitimate theater. It was physically attached to the sprawling Osborne Hotel, Auburn’s largest and leading full-service inn.

The Schine Brothers spare no effort or expense in telegraphing with posters and handbills how unbelievable their Auburn theater would be. Posters heralded the opening of “New York State’s Most Beautiful Comfortable Theater.” State of the art sound systems were considered then put in. Comfortable theater seats, a dynamic proscenium and artist designed carpeting made to coax theater guests to stay for one more performance was installed.

When the theater opened on September 15, 1938 it caused a great deal of excitement and an energy that grew through the decades. The Auburn Schine Theater became the center of attention in Auburn’s downtown. It is a building like no other in town, where young people went on dates, families watched Disney films and older folks enjoyed a night out. It holds the collective memories of generation after generation and is happy to share each one of them with those who enter.

Sale of the Schines Theater Chain, Closure and Subsequent Ventures

The Auburn Schines success was immediate. It survived the war years of the 1940s and the Cold-War-air-raid years of the 1950s, when all of Hollywood was sure television would kill the movie business. Cinema in the 1960s reflected a decade of fun, fashion, rock ‘n’ roll and transitional cultural values. However, 1963 was the worst year for US film production in fifty years. It caused an entrepreneurial shift giving birth to smaller efficient theaters that started popping up everywhere. These “match box” theaters spawned the multi-screen phenom that is still in existence today. The idea that daily income could be easily doubled or tripled by adding more screens appealed to theater owners during the barren early sixties, when few films were held in high regard. By this time, movies palaces nationwide began to feel the strain, and the Auburn Schines was no exception.

After years of court battles over a practice called “circuit bargaining,” used to exert pressure on distributors to obtain preferential treatment over their competition, as well as anti-trust issues and charges of conspiracy with the country’s eight leading distributors, the Schines Brothers sold their theater chain in 1965, using the money to buy land holdings worth millions. Consequently, the building eventually lost its ‘Schine’ brand, but continued to operate.

Even though existing venues were retrofitting into multiple auditoriums, the Auburn Schine continued to operate as a single screen theater and was eventually sold to the Schipol Auburn Theater Group in 1978. Unfortunately, its movie exhibition days soon came to an end in April 1979. A few summer children’s film programs operated in the early 1980s.

In May 1978, the Pentagon Realty Company purchased the building with grand plans to turn it into Auburn’s most vibrant night club, called Charlies. This venture faded sometime in 1983, and a Who’s On First Video Superstore leased its lobby from 1984 through 1992.

CCAC Purchase and Partial Restoration

In February 1998, the Cayuga County Arts Council purchased the building from Pentagon and rehabilitation efforts with help from the City of Auburn soon began in earnest. In all, over $800,000 was raised. In October 1998, the theater’s roof, which which caused a great deal of the building’s deterioration, was finally replaced. It was followed by a retrofit of the electrical system entering the building.

Restoration work on the hand-made art deco doors and box office was completed by January 2007. In 2008, the economic downturn dried up a great deal of the grant monies that were once available. The CCAC continues the work of saving the building and are trying to find the pool of money needed to remediate the asbestos problem in the building. Once the asbestos is removed from the building, the CCAC plans to continue to restore the landmark.

Sadly, too few of these landmark theaters still stand. A few are in danger of being demolished by entities oblivious to the great architectural and historical treasure an Eberson house represents.

New in 2017

The Cayuga County Arts Council has been busy in 2017.

In January, the CCAC met and revamped its mission and vision statements. In March, the CCAC began working with Code Munkeys for a website and logo redesign.

Funding for the abatement for the asbestos in the Schines Theater was added to the City of Auburn’s CBDG 2016-2017 Master Plan, and was approved in mid-June. The CCAC was awarded $800,000 for the removal of the toxic materials, which can be viewed as part of the Pre-Renovation Hazardous Materials report that the board released in May. The CCAC will be working with a partner, Bowers Development,  LLC for abatement. The company is an East Syracuse-based development firm, and specializes in the redevelopment of sites with environmental issues.

The Schines was included in the City of Auburn’s Downtown Revitalization plan, which was submitted on June 14th. Twelve projects were included in the 2017 submission, which included funding for tourism, arts, retail, housing, public improvements and workforce development projects, among others.

The renderings submitted to the city for the restored Schines include glass display cases for the lobby, removal of the current seating for retractable and removable seating, and a dining and bar area. The theater will be converted into a Civic Center, and the plans cal for the building keep the original intention of the theater intact as a place for the performing arts, while opening it up for other uses to be a more flexible, and therefore economically viable, venue.