WARREN, Pa. - Next Saturday, the Struthers Library Theatre invites you to celebrate its 125th anniversary with a wonderful gala evening.
The imposing, elegant building, located on a busy intersection in downtown Warren, has accomplished an impressive history of bringing quality arts performances to a relatively small town. So this week, the Critical Eye is happy to celebrate the most artistic structure in a nearby city and encourage you to support its continuing mission by attending the star-studded performance or combine it with the elegant pre-show reception.
Much of this information is obtained from the theater's Web site, as well as by Executive Director Sue Spencer and the memories of audience members who have been part of the building's history, including myself.
The Struthers Library Theatre in Warren will be host to a 125th anniversary gala.
The story of the Library Theatre begins in 1882. In that year, a wealthy attorney, industrialist, legislator and railroad pioneer named Thomas Struthers decided that no community deserved to call itself part of civilization unless it had a public library. He determined that he would thank his hometown for all it had done to prepare him for success by donating such a facility.
At the same time, Struthers realized that operating a free-lending library requires a certain amount of expense, and hard as it was for him to believe, he might not be around to pay those expenses. For a man who was born on a poor farm and worked his way through law school, it was hard to believe that a community might actually refuse to support something as obviously important as a library.
However, his earlier attempts to convince the communities of northwestern Pennsylvania that having access to railroads and public highways was necessary if they were ever to develop and grow economically healthy, had convinced him that the voting public is not always as possessed of foresight as they might be.
He determined to donate not only a library, but a way for that library to pay its own expenses. He formed a committee and told them that if they would buy a suitable piece of land in downtown Warren, he would pay for the construction of a building which would house the library, plus two spaces which could be rented as shops, plus an opera house, where performances could raise income through ticket sales to provide both a source of income and cultural addition to the community.
The committee raised just over $7,000, with which they purchased the northwest corner of the intersection of Third Avenue and Liberty Street. On that site, Struthers paid in the neighborhood of $90,000 for the promised building. It was built in a mixture of architectural styles, which was common in the late Victorian period.
Among the visible styles in the landmark building are French Second Empire, Italian Renaissance and classic Victorian.
The building fronts on Third Avenue. There is a 12-foot-wide lobby which occupies the exact center of the front of the building, with a space for a shop on either side. The library - now used as a pubic reception site, although the beautiful wooden stacks and other library elements are still present - occupies the front of the entire second and third floors of the building.
The rear of the huge rectangular building contains the 977-seat auditorium and extensive stage and technical facilities. A green room, rehearsal studio and dressing rooms for the chorus occupy the basement, in addition to a boiler room and storage areas. There are eight dressing rooms in the backstage area of the ground floor.
The first work performed in Library Hall, as it was named in 1883, was Gilbert & Sullivan's operetta ''Iolanthe.''
In 1919, it was decided that to be functional, the entire auditorium would have to be gutted and rebuilt. It re-opened Nov. 10 with a popular play from Broadway, ''My Lady Friends.''
As years progressed, productions in the theater declined from operas and legitimate theater to vaudeville, to the showing of commercial films. Presenting theatrical performances went from being a source of profit to requiring subsidy.
Lax maintenance led to water getting in through a leaking roof and walls, causing plaster to crumble and mildew to begin to grow.
In 1982, it was obvious that the building would require a complete renovation or complete demolition.
An invitation was issued to members of the community to join an organization called ''Friends of the Library Theatre.'' When more than a thousand people joined, it was decided the efforts needed to raise the funds for renovation and restoration would be worthwhile.
Within 14 weeks, more than 10,000 individuals and businesses donated $437,453, and renovations were begun. On Oct. 15, 1983, the facility opened with a gala performance including performances by jazz pianist George Shearing, classical pianist Eugene List, opera singers Julia Lovett and James Sergi, and a professional dance company, among others.
Subsequent campaigns have restored the former library to its current beauty, made the facility fully accessible to the handicapped, etc. The shop space on the corner of Third Avenue and Liberty Street now houses the florist and gift shop, Ring Around a Rosy. The space opposite it now contains a meeting and reception room called ''The Friends Room.''
Throughout the 1980s and '90s, the theater was home to a semi-professional summer theater program. Professional producers, directors and musical directors presented performances which featured talented professional actors in the principal roles, with talented locals filling out the casts. Busloads and carloads of tourists from three states filled the auditorium.
Sadly, as the millennium arrived, a variety of problems, including the lure of gambling casinos, resulted in a temporary halt to the productions.
And now ...
In 2007, the theater was used 191 days. A few years ago, the city's community theater organization, Warren Players, had to abandon its own independent facility on Water Street.
The Players now perform four adult-oriented productions per year at the Library Theatre, ranging from musicals, comedies and serious dramas. They also operate Jack-in-the-Box Theatre, which presents productions for and usually by young performers.
The theater serves as home to musical organizations, including the Warren Concert Association, which presents performances by local musicians and professionals on tour. Members of the Jamestown Concert Association can attend all performances of the Warren organization without additional charge if they remember to bring their season tickets. Warren members may attend Jamestown concerts in a similar fashion.
Anyone with valuable property, whether a home, car, business or whatever, is fully aware that it is necessary to invest money and effort in maintaining that property, lest it decline and lose its value. That is certainly true of a huge public building like the Struthers Library Theatre. Here are some examples:
n The system of ropes and pulleys that raise and lower curtains and other scenic structures, and that hold expensive lighting and other equipment above the heads of actors on stage, are mounted on a grid of wood part of the original 1883 building. Touring theatrical companies are often unwilling and sometime unable to mount expensive equipment on wood which is more than a century old. Asking actors to walk beneath heavy equipment which is so mounted is a risk.
n Lighting and sound equipment that were state of the art in 1983 are now dinosaurs, and can't perform the demands of many productions.
n The beautiful Library Room is available for use by the public on a limited basis because it can be reached only by climbing many stairs. An elevator and other facilities for the handicapped could increase its use many times over.
These are in addition to standard maintenance, such as keeping the roof in repair, or keeping the furnace and air conditioning in operating condition.
An anniversary capital campaign is currently under way. The more success it experiences, the more the theater can adapt itself. The theater has hopes of presenting more professional touring companies and possibly restoring the summer theater which was recently so popular.
Executive Director Sue Spencer has been operating the Allegheny Regional Theatre Experience, which offers classes to students between second and 12h grades in improvisation, singing, acting, dancing, writing, make-up, costuming and working in backstage discipline. The program is producing a young and enthusiastic body of citizens who understand the importance of a community treasure like this building.
Just the facts
Naturally, donations are welcome to the fund drive. Drop in to the building in person. Phone them at (814) 723-7231. Write to them at 302 Third St., Warren, PA 16365. Or, go to www.strutherslibrarytheatre.com.
And, of course, you can attend the gala performance next Saturday. Tickets to the performance itself cost $35. Seating is Festival Seating, which means first-come, first served.
Attend the elegant reception before the show, in addition to the show, for $50 per ticket. All the ways to buy tickets are given above.
Sadly, our very early deadlines have crossed swords with the theater's planning, meaning that I don't have a star-studded list of performers to offer you, just reasons why you should attend if you can. Use one of the three methods of contact above, because by the time this sees print, the participants are probably known. Based on the performers in the 1983 gala, I suspect it will be a feast of excellence.