There's No Business Like Show Business
 

How I got involved as a partner in the
Keswick Theatre


Click on Picture To Go to Keswick Web Site

In 1987 when things were going pretty well and I thought we had things under control, we made the innocent mistake of  speaking with a man and his daughter who had emerged from the recently closed theatre just when we were leaving the Chinese restaurant in the middle of the block where the theatre was located.  This was Chuck Schrader and his daughter Beth. I gave Chuck my card and in less than a week he called me to ask to purchase a sprinkler system for the building. Believe me...the building needed more than a sprinkler system since I had looked at the building a few months earlier as a possible office building/movie theatre concept. It was a totally wreck.

A few weeks later Chuck contacted me to ask me if I was interested in joining a group of investors to put up a total of $75,000 to get the theatre in shape to reopen. I attended a meeting and beside another potential investor, I meet the three people who would forever change my life: Tom, Dick and Harry.

The Glenside Landmark Society.

The first time the theatre almost was lost was in December 1952, when a fire started in the roof. It was the talk of the town and it took 1 1/2 years to open up again.
The Keswick was always know for hot shows!

So it opened up in 1954 and operated until the early '80's as another suburban movie theatre and then it closed and waiting for the wrecking ball and bull dozer hundreds around the country.

Chuck Schrader, a local residence of Oreland,  founded the Glenside Landmark Society and contrary to popular myths, did not stand in front of the bulldozers.  Somehow, three men became involved in the board of directors who were the G B M in the corporate name: Dick GUSTAFSON, Harry BARBIN and Tom MCCABE.  There were others involved and like all non-profit, voluntary groups tons of in fighting and back biting. Dick and his wife, Joan were professional magicians who performed at trade shows, cruises, night clubs and even appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in the '60's. He and Joan have a company that specializes in special stage effects and magic show type presentations for business sales meetings and conventions and they do a couple of  traditional magic shows around the area. Harry is an attorney who had connections with Cheltenham Bank and was instrumental in getting a mortgage for the group and Tom founded a specialty electrical manufacturing business which engineers and  produces systems for major industries. Tom serves on the board of  the "Highlands" which is a colonial homestead located in nearby Ft. Washington.

I've heard the stories about the director they brought in the run the theatre, Chuck knowing where and keeping all the building's secrets to himself. The classic movie series that failed. Selling cookies to raise money for repairs. The lack of support from the surrounding business community who really wanted the theatre demolished to enlarge the parking lot.

The group tried little theatre, they brought in acts like Richie Haven and the Fred Waring orchestra. Some of the shows were successful, but the building needed a tremendous amount of work and they just didn't have the cash flow to keep it open.

Finally, the theatre closed and the for sale sign went up and Tom, Dick and Harry, who guaranteed the mortgage to the bank were stuck. There were offers from religious group or two to buy the building, but those deals didn't go through. I even looked at the building for my beverage business thinking we could move our offices to the second floor and still operate a theatre, but when I looked at the blue prints and finally went through the building, I discovered that the second floor was just a false ceiling installed over the lobby when the theatre was "modernized and air conditioned" in the '50s.


"You will meet three wise men who will change your life"

Then, as mentioned above, Debbie and I went out to dinner at the Chinese restaurant in the middle of the block and had that serendipitous encounter with Chuck Schrader and his daughter Beth. I gave Chuck my card and a few days later he called to ask if I would donate $75,000 needed to hook up water to the sprinkler sytem and make other repairs needed to open the theatre. I told him based on my fast inspection of the building, it would take a lot more than that to get the theatre in shape.

Tom, Dick & Harry

About two weeks after that, Chuck called again and asked if I would attend a meeting at Dick's house and there met Harry and Tom and John Drury. John had been involved in the restoration of the Chestnut Hill hotel and now owns and operates a little hotel in Jim Thorpe in the Poconos.

Dick had a simple plan...too simple: Make the necessary repairs, work around the hugh air conditioners on the stage by doing the performances on the stage thrust in front of the proscenium arch. He had a small model of the stage with lights to show what it would look like. Dick had a shop in his home where he made the props and illusions for his magic act. What did I know! Dick went to a weekend workshop presented by the League of Historic Theatres and learned everything there was to know about running a theatre....a non-profit theatre.

I signed up, anted up with the other four investors with cash and another bank loan and we were off and running. Debbie and I went down to Brigantine between Christmas and New Years in 1987 and I sat there and wrote a business plan that listed every type of entertainment and audience I could think of  that would work in the theatre.

Getting the Theatre Ready for Opening Night

 

Clean Up, Fix Up, Paint Up

John was in charge of the building and hired the contractors we needed. It was constant activity for three months with three crews working in the building at any given time.


Surprises

There was a wall that separated the auditorium from the lobby. Most movie theatres were built like that to keep the theatre dark, the air conditioning chilly and the noise from the lobby down. The last row of seats has a fabulous etched glass partition on top of the marble knee wall surrounded by hugh columns with plaster ornamentation.

We decided to tear down the wall and when we did we found a row of perfect brass stanchion poles with hugh brass balls on the top inside. It was like archeology and we discovered King Tut's tomb.

Tom had his shop actually make small brass castings for the rings onto which the velvet covered ropes attach and Jim Bach, one of our part time people proudly polished those poles for years as part of the pre-show touch up.

Our Partners the Plumbers

There was a lot to do plumbing wise in the building. First, we had to make the sprinkler system work and this involved testing, replacing parts, digging up the street to attach the system to the water main since the old sprinkler system was feed from the water tower which does not exist anymore. There was plumbing fixtures to replace and over the course of the years after signing many checks, I felt that the plumbers were our silent partners.

The Lil Ole Plasterer

The ornamental plaster is one of the features of the theatre and we were very lucky to find Earl Felber who had been in the business for years, had retired and knew the Keswick very well. He was an apprentice on the job in 1928!

This small man went to work with his team of mold makers and plasters. Smoking Chesterfield cigarettes and standing on a scaffold, Mr. Felber got the plastering work done.  Sadly, Earl Felber died, but we have found similarly talented people who know the craft.

Over the years, with repeated damaged caused by the leaking rook, by overflowing toilets on the second floor, we had had to have the plaster work done over several times.

A major plastering project is the proscenium arch which surrounds the stage. This structure needs lots of attention in terms of repairing the plaster and painting and guilding it with gold leaf or gold leaf paint. This is a major project that would take another Michaelangelo to do.

Three Men Buy a Theatre.

I called Frank Ford who had a talk show on the radio and who was also a partner in the Valley Forge Music Fair business asking him to consider investing in the theatre. He declined but told me this little story:
Three men buy a theatre. They're sitting around discussing what they should do. The first one says "We should cover the the seats with velour or velvet and change $2.00 more." The second partner says "We should cover the seats with leather and charge $3.00 more". The third partner says " We should charge $1.00 less and cover the seats with asses."

I'm like the third partner.


Better Promotion

When we started, we inherited a mailing list of typed sheets of paper that had about 2200 names on it. Today the mailing list is over 75,000 names. When we started 12 years ago, no one knew where Glenside was located. We're beyond that phase and we get people from Lancaster, North Jersey, Wilmington coming to shows at the Keswick Theatre.


Why Can't We Sell Snapple Here? Duh!

One of my partner's daughters was working with a company that had just started to distribute Snapple. He brought up at a meeting the fact that she wanted to us the sell Snapple at the concession stand. I told him that I wouldn't really like that and since Snapple was busy making threats to distributors to drop my product and sell their product exclusively, I told him it would be a long day in Snapple Land before he'd see a bottle of Snapple at the Keswick Theatre.
The Liquor License Solution
 
The PA liquor control board provides liquor licenses for theatres over a certain size. It appeared that the law had been written to accommodate the Valley Forge Music Fair so we put our best political connections to work to have the law amended to allow theatres with the number of seats we had to obtain a liquor license. These things are never straight forward, but the law was amended and we were able to apply for a theatre liquor license.  This extra revenue has helped us a great deal and made the theatre a more complete experience.
The Restoration Fund Solution
 
The theatre building itself is very interesting if you like old structures. I am amazed when I pour over the original blue prints. The systems and technology they had in the late '20 were clever.  Horace Traumbauer was the architect who also designed the Phila Museum of Art, the Castle at Beaver College, The Free Library in Phila and many of the train stations along the Phila-Lansdale Line. The Keswick was just another vaudeville movie theatre and there were thousands of them in America in every town.

Eventually we had enough cash flow to pay the mortgage, payroll, utilities as well as the talent and advertising costs, but when it came time to undertake major repairs to the 80 year old building, there wasn't enough money in the business to do that.

So Tom suggested a $1.00 per ticket restoration fee which would fund the major projects. The first project was to remove the four heavy air conditioner units which said on the stage contained in a sound proof room. This was the '50 vintage air conditioning system and this created the need to build out the stage beyond the proscenium arch. The heater in the basement was an oil fired steam heater and was on its last legs. So we borrowed $125,000 and had a new heating and air conditioning system installed, removed the four old units and tore down the stage extension.  Part of the stage is still over the original orchestra pit which has an access door from the basement under the stage.

Other projects planned

And we engaged an architect who had drawn u plans to completely do the upstairs would put a true second floor above the false ceiling over the lobby where the concession stand is. That ceiling was put in in the '50 and conceals a vaulted ceiling with ornamental plastering. Most the the plastering is destroyed as a result of water damage from the leaking roofing.

A true floor needs to be put in so we can move the office down towards Keswick Ave. and utilize that space in double the rest room capacity.

This is a major, major pie in the sky project which I think would cost $300-500,000

We have to double to electrical power capacity in the building and this requires replacing the entire electrical feed and primary power panel.

The auditorium ceiling, side wall curtains and seating needs to be replaced.
The plaster behind the side wall curtains is mush due to weather and water. Since we had the entire building pointed and every roof replaced, we're ready to undertake the interior repairs.
 

Box Office Automation
We started out using preprinted tickets for every show and performance. The tickets were numbered, color coded and had to be keep in a little tray for each show. Each sale had to be recorded on a had written spread sheet and each row and column had to be tallied up and the end of the day.

In 1992, I found a small company in a trade magazine that had an inexpensive ticketing system and thus we started our relationship with Bruce and Diane Rowe at Center Stage
We are able to create a seating chart for each performance, print tickets, the labels for the ticket envelopes and labels for mailing the tickets as well as verify the credit card transactions and print a receipt very efficiently and can handle the ticket for less than it would cost us and our customers if we turned the job over to Ticket Monster.

That's still part of my job to monitor and upgrade the computers and tend to the network. We moved up from 286's to 386's to 486's to Pentiums and now were upgrading again to put in a higher speed network.

Bruce has written an internet program patch to allow customers to actually select their seats and do the entire ticketing transaction on the internet and that will be ready for us to try in January '01.


Staffing Up
 

When people come to a show, they see the result of hours and days or advance preparation for an event that lasts an hour and a half.

We have a great staff of people as well as a dedicated of volunteers who usher the shows.

The Keswick Theatre District in Booming Downtown Glenside

The township had a grant from the State to spruce up the downtown business areas. Abington Township hired a "Main Street Manager" and proceeded to add quaintness by bricking the sidewalks, planting trees, and adding old fashioned street lights with banners to add charm and quaintness to the area.

The Traffic Circle and Town Clock

They added a small traffic circle and in the center were planted flowers and a "town clock".

Business Come and Businesses Go

Many people think being on the same block as the theatre will make their retail business successful. Well, that depends on the type of business and whether or not it friendly to people who are there before and after the show.

Aside from restaurants who generally do well when we have a show (in part thanks to my personal "restaurants near the Keswick" page, there were "browsing type businesses" that could pick up business IF they actually were opened when we delivered a thousand people to within 200 feet of their front doors.  There were businesses which actually closed because they felt they couldn't handle the crowd, or they close at 6 PM and when we have a 8 PM curtain, there 1000 people milling outside until 7 or 7:30PM when we open the doors. And they generally make no attempt to synchronize their hours with our schedule by making special hours.

Now that you know some of the behind the scenes stories of the Keswick Theatre, join the feee  e mail  list of newly booked shows and come out to Glenside for a great evening of dining and entertainment. There are many unusual specialty retail stores in the area (See keswicktheatre.com)
so you can make an entire excursion.

The Complete and Unabridge History of the Keswick Theatre
Here's a brand new book, written by Judith Herbst, who is the Buisiness Manager of the Keswick. A tremendous amount of research has gone into this book and includes more than 200 photographs. Order #0-7385-3561-3 directly from sales@arcadiapublishing.com.

Update as of February 2002: After 14 years, my partners and I cashed out and sold the Keswick to another group involved in the concert business and the prospect of even bigger shows coming to the Keswick is in the future.

A lot of blood and sweat went into making the Keswick Theatre a "theatre" instead of an enlarged parking lot. As the torch is passed to a new generation, I wish them the best of luck and thank everyone who bought tickets to shows for their support and patronage.


As for me, I  get to see every show for FREE for the rest of my life!
Want to sit in my primo seats? 

Here's your very own backstage pass!

Show it to Roland with 100 bottle caps from Elliott's Amazing Juices. You go to the head of the line.  While you're waiting, get Dr. Jeff across the alley to give you an adjustment

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