F.M. Kirby Center, Wilkes-Barre, PA
Posted by: Groundspeak Premium Member EEKJeep
N 41° 14.716 W 075° 52.886
18T E 426145 N 4566359
Quick Description: Historic theatre on Public Square in downtown Wilkes-Barre, PA.
Location: Pennsylvania, United States
Date Posted: 5/14/2007 5:02:54 PM
Waymark Code: WM1HWD
Published By: Groundspeak Premium Member silverquill
Views: 192

Long Description:
The Kirby Center is a beautifully restored theatre in heart of the city of Wilkes-Barre, PA. The theatre has hosted numerous acts over the years from Tommy Dorsey to B.B. King to The Irish Tenors.

F.M. KIRBY CENTER HISTORY, courtesy of kirbycenter.org:

It was in 1938 that the Comerford movie chain chose this site on Public Square on which to erect a movie house as a monument to founder Michael E. Comerford. The grandest of flagship cinemas was planned, replacing a bus terminal, a printing company, a stonecutter and a drug store.

The result was an advanced art deco dream ... lavish interior appointments, five lobbies, oval rose-colored mirrors, tall fluted columns, doors and walls in copper tints with shades of metallic blue. All of this was topped off by the "Giant Lavaliere," the spectacular chandelier that still graces the lobby of the Kirby Center today. In 1949, ownership of the Comerford Theater was transferred to the Penn Paramount Company, and the building was renamed the Paramount Theater. It continued to operated as one of Northeastern Pennsylvania's majestic, single screen movie palaces for another twenty-seven years.

Not even the muddy, fourteen foot deep flood waters of Hurricane Agnes in the summer of 1972 could keep her closed. But, the natural disaster that befell the entire Wyoming Valley took its toll. The newly opened multiplex at a newly opened mall became the focal point of film-goers as the valley city dug itself out from the tons of mud and flood debris. Many of the downtown businesses never recovered and were later razed as part of a massive urban redevelopment plan. Two other downtown screens would be demolished during the mid and late 1970's, but the Paramount hung on.

Finally, the economics of operating a large, single screen building, coupled with the change in shopping patterns and the free parking associated with the mall cineplex, forced the Paramount to close its doors in late 1977. The theater was now in private hands. Attempts were made to use the facility but they were hollow echoes of the glory that had once been. Closed circuit televised boxing was tried - and failed. A few touring concert acts performed to mostly filled houses, but the overall deterioration of the building coupled with a lack of current equipment made it impossible to succeed.

The owner, unaware or uncaring of the historic value of the structure, gutted the luxurious box office lobby, selling off or demolishing the large fluted lighting standards and cutting apart the brass and bronze door frames. Removed were the curved glass display cases, as well as the brass and marble ticket booth that had stood in front. In their place, a vegetable market was first tried. Later, a diner of sorts was installed. Neither venture succeeded and the owner, now unable to make a go of it, decided to demolish the structure.

Fortunately, a group of local residents banded together under the acronym S.T.O.P. (Save The Old Paramount.) They were successful in having the building added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, but even so, it was basically abandoned. . . until 1985. Enter Albert Boscov. The owner of one of the nation's largest, privately owned department store chains, Boscov's, was no stranger to Wilkes-Barre. A few years earlier he had purchased one of the last remaining downtown department stores (Fowler, Dick and Walker - The Boston Store.) This was his first multi-storied store and the people of Wilkes-Barre showed that a downtown store was still a good idea. So much so that the store was the leading dollar producer of Boscov's entire chain for many years.

Mr. Boscov wanted a way to say "Thank you" to the people of Wilkes-Barre. And the abandoned Paramount was just the right way. In 1985, Boscov began to meet with local business and civic leaders to put together a drive to acquire the property and raise the necessary $4,300,000 to get the doors open.

Everyone responded. From gifts of grade school students, to wage give backs by labor unions to the major naming gift given by Fred M. Kirby II - everyone pulled together. And in remarkably short order, too. Announced as the Paramount Civic Center on December 21, 1985, the project was launched, designed and finished in just under nine months. Renamed the F. M. Kirby Center in honor of Fred M. Kirby I, the co-founder of the Woolworth's chain and a native of the Wilkes-Barre area, the Center opened her now restored brass doors on Friday, September 19th, 1986.

Of course, not everything was, nor could it all be fixed in that short amount of time and on a fairly limited budget.

The art deco nature of the Kirby Center reflects an era that was an amalgam of styles - diverse and conflicting influences. Some trace its roots to Paris and the 1925 "Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes," from which the term "art deco" originates.

It was an emotional style in Paris ... exuberant, colorful and playful. When it eventually was adopted by other European countries and later the United States, it was given a more intellectual interpretation based on theories of functionalism and economy, often referred to as "Modernism."

Art Deco was unlike its stylistic predecessors because it was clean and pure. The lines, if they curved, were gradual and sweeping; straight lines were straight as a ruler. It used aspects of machine design as inspiration, and accelerated the adoption of new materials like plastic, bakelite and chrome.

According to writer Mike Darton, "The mixing of all these influences made Art Deco the style it is. In the hands of a genius, the objects transcended their sources. In the hands of incompetent designers, or plagiarists, they might become drab or garish, but they were, nevertheless, truly Art Deco." Art Deco survives today as the last truly sumptuous style ... and we at the F.M. Kirby Center revel in its fertility and exuberance.


After a year and a half long study, the Kirby Center began in early 1997 a complete restoration and renovation of the art-deco terra cotta tile facade that is easily the most recognizable aspect of the theater. Started in March of 1997, this project took until June of 1998 to complete. Quad 3 Group of Wilkes-Barre served as the project architects, with general contracting services being provided by L. R. Costanzo, Inc. of Scranton, PA. The majority of the exterior work was done by Masonry Preservation Services, Inc. of Berwick, PA.

The restoration involves several phases. In phase one, the interior second floor offices were demolished to make way for scaffolding. Scaffolding was erected throughout the interior of the second floor to the roof of the parapet structure, as well as on the front surface of the building to completely enclose the structure and protect the general public. Existing heating and air-conditioning systems were relocated and new temporary electrical services were installed. The Center's offices were relocated to temporary spaces in the basement and storage hallways. This took approximately four weeks to complete.

Phase two saw work begin in earnest. Masonry Preservation Services dismantled the top twenty feet of the parapet structure. The original terra-cotta blocks were chiseled out from the brick and steel works and lowered to the street by hand. Each of these blocks weighs an average of 120 pounds. Next, the deteriorated brick and mortar understructure were removed and the steel framing checked. At this point it was determined that most of the original steel framing would be salvageable. Sample blocks were sent to the replacement tile manufacturer.

After power washing the remaining tiles to remove loose debris workers then began to cut out portions of the remaining tiles that had sustained heavy cracking from moisture and repeated freezing. These areas were then patched with a mixture of mortar and other materials that came close to matching the original tiles' elasticity. Once cured, the patches were hand painted and sealed to match the surrounding areas. At the same time, all of the mortar seams were cut away and new mortar installed. This was also color matched to the existing tiles. Where possible, tiles from the parapet that were in good shape were used to replace tiles that were beyond saving in the lower level. This phase was completed in mid to late October.

Phase three involved assembly and installation of the new steel framework necessary to support the new tile system. These tiles will be comprised of GFRC block (Glass Fiber Reinforced Concrete) and are molded directly from the original samples. The blocks are then colored and sealed with a minimum of four coats of sealant, which gives the blocks the same sheen as the original tiles. A sample of these new tiles is in the lobby for public viewing.

Phase four involved the delivery and assembly of the new tiles, installation of new roof decking and erection of the new flagpole. Phases three and four overlapped and were complete in late May of 1998. The design of the new office spaces occurred during much of phases two and three and construction began in March. The new office space was occupied in May of 1998.

The remaining original tiles that were not able to be reincorporated into the parapet, due to deterioration, are now in storage, awaiting final designs for their incorporation into a new display. Some of these tiles will be permanently installed in the interior lobby as a reminder of the craftsmanship and dedication the original designers and builders had and the pride that we, the current owners have in our historic building.

Theater Name: F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts

Country: United States

71 Public Square
Wilkes-Barre, PA USA

Web Site: [Web Link]

Venue: Private Theater

Type of Productions:
Musicals, plays, films, concerts, dance.

Restored Building: yes

Date of Construction: 1938

Architect/Designer: Charles Ryan

Stage Type: Proscenium

Seating Capacity: 1800

Special Productions/Events/Festivals:
For information on show and concert schedules or tickets, please visit the Kirby Center at the link above or call the box office at (570) 826-1100.

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