Bright lights, big milestone: Kirby Center turns 30

i Sep 17th 2016

By Pat Abdella, Wilkes-Barre Citizens’ Voice

WILKES-BARRE — The 635 round light bulbs hang unlit every day from the golden marquee while the life of downtown Wilkes-Barre passes below.

A college student runs underneath, her shirt darkened from sweat as she gets in a workout. A pack of young professionals amble past, talking about the afternoon’s work. Someone in the corner asks for a light. Inevitably, a pedestrian emerges from one side of the marquee and peers at the ticker, checking out the upcoming schedule.

As darkness encroaches on daylight, a timer inside the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts will switch the lights on, changing the building from one of the many interesting structures downtown into the focal point of Public Square.

Thirty years ago, on Sept. 19, 1986, the Kirby Center opened its doors to the public for the first time. Since that night, when everyone was dressed in tuxedos and ball gowns, the Kirby Center has become a pillar of the Wilkes-Barre community and, if its staff has its way, it will continue to grow in the coming years.

“It makes our town, our city, stand out,” said businessman and music promoter Joe Nardone.

“The Kirby Center really worked from the beginning,” said businessman Al Boscov, who was a driving force in bringing the theater into existence. He said the local community deserves a lot of credit for supporting the theater at the start and continuing to do so over the years.

William Beekman, the center’s current executive director, also said he was thankful for the community’s support. He said that’s part of why this year’s schedule is so robust.

“This season isn’t so much about ‘Look at us, we’ve been here for 30 years,’” he said. “It’s about you, the community, who has kept us here for 30 years.”

The 635 lights, hanging from the marquee, are still on. How they got to be is an interesting story.

The early days

Jeanette Wagner was there the first night, as crowds gathered under the marquee’s lights. A musician with the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic, she can tell you many stories about some of the work that went into bringing that first night to fruition. The Philharmonic joined the American Ballet Theatre and prima ballerina Cynthia Gregory in providing the night’s entertainment.

Wagner wore a long, black dress that night. With sheer sleeves.

“How about that,” The 80-year-old Scranton resident said. “It was brand new.”

What else does she remember? Work was being done until the last possible minute.

“They were still working when people were waiting,” she said. “People were sweeping before they opened the doors to let people in. But it was opened and it was very successful.”

While that first night was a memorable one, the Kirby Center’s story goes back even further.

It starts in 1938.

That’s when Michael Edward “M.E.” Comerford opened the Comerford Theater in the building that would one day be called the Kirby Center. “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” starring Tyrone Power and Don Ameche greeted the first audiences on Aug. 18. The people who made their way into the art deco theater saw the lobby’s impressive giant chandelier — its sister hangs in the Empire State Building.

Comerford, a Northeastern Pennsylvania resident who owned dozens of theaters, eventually got hit with antitrust lawsuits and sold some of his theaters. In 1949, he sold The Comerford to the Penn Paramount Co., who renamed the theater The Paramount.

It stayed that way into the 1970s, but time, not to mention the ravages of Hurricane Agnes, did their damage. The theater looked to be near the end of its days.

Save The Old Paramount (S.T.O.P.), however, tried to save it. First, in 1978, when the building was put onto the National Register of Historic Places.

But that didn’t stop it from showing its last movie, “The Farmer,” in 1977.

By 1979, local newspapers had stories about the theater being razed to make room for a drive-in bank and parking lot. However, those plans were scrapped and the theater continued to host the occasional concert.

S.T.O.P. gathered momentum in the mid-1980s and there was new hope for the old building, despite its disrepair.

“It was big and it was empty and it was dark,” Wagner recalled. “It felt very, very big and empty.”

She remembers a lot from her 28 years with the philharmonic and 26 years as the group’s librarian. One memory that stands out is walking into the theater with two other philharmonic representatives as they scouted it out for future performances.

They wondered: Would it work? Could this be a new home for the philharmonic’s Luzerne County shows?

“We liked it a lot and we thought it would be a really, really wonderful place,” Wagner said.

She — and she’s not the only one — gives a lot of credit to Boscov for the theater’s existence.

His efforts — including raising funds for the center — are the reason those lights first went on.

‘Making the downtown special’

If you wander through the bowels of the Kirby Center, past the tunnel that has been made famous by artists like Ringo Starr who take pictures there and put them on social media, you’ll come to a rack of spotlights.

The Kirby Center’s spotlights have shined on many stars over the years. The first season included luminaries like Diana Ross and Gregory Hines. Later years featured up-and-coming stars like Idina Menzel. This year will see the likes of John Mellencamp.

But that first night, the spotlight shone briefly on Boscov. For good reason.

“When Al went around asking people to step up to the plate, you couldn’t say no,” says Joe Nardone.

Boscov said it wasn’t a hard decision to get involved.

“It was pretty doggone quiet,” he said of the downtown area before the theater was renovated.

He liked the idea of a theater drawing people downtown several nights a year. They’d get something to eat and stop in his stores.

He’s proud of how the theater turned out.

“It really played a big part in making the downtown special,” he said. He’s very quick to give credit to other business leaders who stepped up at the time.

For people like Wagner, Boscov’s role was special.

“When they were fixing it, Al Boscov said just go over to Boscov’s and get anything we needed,” she recalled. “As long as we said it was for the theater, we got anything we needed. Of course, we only took what we needed for the theater.”

Renovations started on March 17, 1986. On Aug. 29, just 21 days before the first show, the theater got its new name in honor of Fred M. Kirby, the Wilkes-Barre native who co-founded F.W. Woolworths. The project cost more than $3 million.

On Sept. 19, the final sweeping was done, the lights were on and the crowds made their way through the doors.

They’re still making their way through the doors. They mill about in the lobby, under the big chandelier’s glow. Beekman and his staff watch as they grab drinks or make their way to their seats.

Sometimes the crowd is there for a wedding. The bride and groom will make their way up the staircase to have their photos taken with the chandelier in the background. Sometimes the crowd is dressed in formal wear for a community function. Or kids fill the lobby coloring pages the day of Wilkes-Barre’s Christmas Parade.

Usually, however, they’re there for a concert, play or movie.

Beekman, who grew up in the Poconos and previously worked with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center, first walked into the Kirby Center in 1994 to see a Bob Dylan concert. He is always trying to find more ways to get people into the theater.

“I’m a guy who grew up going to live events” he said. “To me, what I like is bringing in acts that not too long ago you’d have to drive to New York or Philly to see.”

The Kirby Center has found its groove when it comes to bringing in the main acts.

It’s working on growing its cultural programs, making them more impressive.

Any time Beekman talks publicly about the venue’s schedule, he points out that it’s the cultural and educational programs that make the Kirby Center what it is.

As the center’s schedule has grown to more than 50 shows a season, it’s offering more events that give children an opportunity to see the arts, such as the People’s Theater Series, which is bringing “I Have a Dream” to the theater this year.

The growth of those programs is what Beekman hopes to see in the future and another reason why the center will continue to have its lights on.