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Forty Fort and It's Movie Family

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Contributed by Thomas Alexander
Published on July 31, 2003

FORTY FORT: A BRIEF LOOK AT THE TOWN

Forty Fort, Pennsylvania. This odd-sounding little borough at the foot of the Pocono Mountains in the northeastern portion of the state actually got its name from the first forty settlers who built a fort there during America's revolutionary days. It became a borough in 1887. During the end of the 19th century and through the first half of the 20th century, Forty Fort was at the center of the coal mining industry. But, by the early 1960's, coal mining's heyday was over.

The Susquehanna River, which had flooded many sections of the Wyoming Valley on several occasions over the years, always seemed to spare Forty Fort. But that changed in 1972, when Hurricane Agnes turned its furious wrath on the unsuspecting citizens. However, the people of the community united, and today the borough remains as the crown jewel of the west side of the Wyoming Valley.

A SECRET MOST RESIDENTS DON'T KNOW

One very little known fact about Forty Fort is its place in motion picture history. In the earliest days of silent cinema, the emerging movie moguls had their offices in Manhattan, but did most of their filming across the Hudson River in New Jersey. Studios were built there and many "westerns" were actually shot in Secaucus. But as filming became more expensive and logistics more unmanageable, the studio heads were looking for a place within a morning’s drive from their swanky New York offices, that offered more scenic possibilities. Enter the Wyoming Valley and Forty Fort. Here was a region just a couple of hours from the big city, which had beautiful mountains with lush forests, a wide and winding river and an expansive, flat valley perfect for filming.

The Black Diamond Studio was among the first to set up shop in Forty Fort around 1910 or 1911. Silent one reel comedies were shot there. (It is very doubtful any of these epics have been saved.) The filmmakers were thrilled with the area's natural beauty and resources, plus their ability to keep budgets low. The Black Diamond Studio was built on Dilley Street, and some of the buildings still exist today as warehouses. Other smaller studios followed, and Forty Fort seemed to be at the center of a growing, albeit short-lived, movie industry. The long and harsh winters of 1912 and 1913 made production virtually impossible and the studio heads had no choice but to move to a location where the climate was more favorable. Of course that location was Southern California, and Hollywood was born. But it's interesting to consider that for a brief instant, the Wyoming Valley, and more specifically Forty Fort, was an epicenter of major movie production.

FORTY FORT AND THE ALEXANDERS

Interestingly, Dilley Street, where the Black Diamond Studio once stood, was where the Forty Fort Theatre would be built some 25 years later. The theater building still stands today on the corner of Dilley Street and Wyoming Avenue (US Route 11) and was converted to a professional building when the Alexander family eventually closed and sold it in 1988 after fifty years of operation. Greek immigrant Thomas P. Alexander (Alexopoulos) and his partner and brother-in-law Louis Marinos were pioneers in the motion picture theatre business in northeastern Pennsylvania and built their first nickelodeon in the nearby town of Luzerne in 1907. Their theatres grew in numbers to around eleven or twelve by the late 1920s. At the height of the depression, Paramount Pictures' theatre division, Paramount-Publix, offered the duo $250,000 for all but one of their theatres, which they kept and operated in Wyoming, Pennsylvania. (The Wyoming Theatre was operated by the Marinos family until it burned in 1982.) They accepted Paramount's offer, and Thomas P. Alexander retired from the movie business at age 48 in 1930. Nineteen thirty-six was a pivotal year for the Alexander family. Louis Marinos had died. Thomas' eldest son Alec, who had continued to work in the industry for other theatre owners, grew tired of the way his new bosses ran things, and approached his father about building another theatre of their own. Alexander partnered with the Comerford Corporation and promised to build a state-of-the-art showplace at the southern end of Forty Fort. It would be a gift to a town that needed a theatre and a legacy to his sons. (A second theatre, called The Institute, operated for a short while by several managers including the Alexanders on Forty Fort’s northern end.) On January 28th, 1938, the Forty Fort Theatre opened with the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland film, Thoroughbreds Don't Cry. Alexander's promise of a grand showplace was realized with its art-deco lighting, terrazzo floored lobby, spacious auditorium, ruby red drapes and carpeting, and the stunning ornately hand-detailed golden proscenium arch that surrounded the silver screen. Uniformed ushers stood sentry at each aisle as patrons walked past large promotional displays that featured Clark Gable, Cary Grant, and Carole Lombard. On the west side of Wyoming Valley, the Forty Fort Theatre was the showplace.

All of Alexander's sons worked at the theatre, but when they were called to serve their country during the second World War, their dad, at age sixty, returned from his “second” retirement to man the helm of the Forty Fort Theatre. In October of 1946, Thomas P. Alexander died after falling down a staircase in his Kingston, Pennsylvania home. But his four sons, Alec, Frank, Peter, and Taki (pronounced tyke-ee) continued in their father's footsteps, and Forty Fort Theatre would operate for fifty consecutive years. In 1950, the Alexander family bought out the Comerford's interest, and owned it solely. They also bought back their father’s theatre in Luzerne in 1955, which was operated primarily by Frank Alexander until it burned on Memorial Day, 1969. (An interesting side note: The Luzerne Theatre had just been remodeled and was establishing itself as an art and foreign film house when hot ashes from a burn barrel landed on the roof of a connecting apartment building. The theatre and the entire block were completely destroyed by the blaze. However, a cinderblock wall of the old theatre still stands. The Luzerne Theatre, built in 1925, housed hundreds upon hundreds of classic movie posters and memorabilia dating as far back as the silent age, all of which was lost forever.) With the dawning of a new decade, and just the Forty Fort Theatre left, the 1970's saw Frank's son Thomas F. Alexander join the family business. He would be followed a few years later by Peter's son, Thomas C. Alexander.

In 1972, Hurricane Agnes produced three days of heavy rain along the eastern seaboard, causing massive flooding that, at the time, was the greatest natural disaster in US history. The Susquehanna River overflowed its banks and the Wyoming Valley was the hardest hit region in the state. The Forty Fort Theatre reopened at the end of August after two months of exhaustive clean up. Initially after the flood, business was brisk, but the movie exhibition industry was beginning to change. Twin theatres were the new craze. They were the forerunner to the megaplexes of today. The Alexanders considered for some time actually twinning the Forty Fort Theatre, going as far as having plans drawn up. But while they were considering that possibility, the state had plans of its own. One of the original proposals was for a new bypass road called the Cross Valley Expressway to go right through the neighborhood where the theatre stood. However, the state eventually abandoned that plan, shifting the route slightly south, and the Alexander’s ditched the twinning notion, and remodeled the theater in the mid 1970’s, choosing instead to maintain its single screen charm. A new marquee was installed in 1974, followed by new seats and a redecorated lobby in 1976; little of which mattered as first run product became harder and harder to secure. The Saturday afternoon children’s matinees that featured everything from The Three Stooges, Dracula, and Godzilla to Captain Nemo and Hercules went by the wayside by 1977. The age of the single screen theatre was fading. Blockbuster sci-fi spectaculars had replaced the disaster epics of a few years earlier and merchandise tie-ins with the growing corporate theatre chains were the wave of the future.

Peter Alexander operated the Dallas Drive-In Theatre in Dallas, Pennsylvania during the summer seasons from 1978 through 1982. But by 1983, drive-ins were becoming a thing of the past, so he chose to close the outdoor showplace.

In 1986, Peter Alexander, who had taken over operations of the Forty Fort Theatre some years earlier, passed away unexpectedly. Alec and Frank had retired, leaving Taki and his two nephews to run the aging movie palace. In a new landscape dotted with cineplexes, the Forty Fort Theatre became the last bastion of an era long gone. Its grand trappings began to show wear and equipment became outdated (though they improved the sound system and converted from the standard change-over/carbon arc style projectors to the more updated platter/Xenon lamp units in 1984). The crowds dwindled as competition for first run product grew fierce. With great reluctance, the family decided to close the doors of the Forty Fort Theatre on leap day, Sunday, February 29th, 1988. The crowds that last evening were not overflowing, but respectable. Ironically, the theatre’s final attraction was Fatal Attraction. "No light at this end of town anymore," a tearful Taki Alexander lamented as Thomas C. Alexander put the key in the door for the last time. The Forty Fort Theatre had been the last single screen theatre left in Wyoming Valley. The days of the neighborhood theatre were gone. Taki, Frank and Alec, have all since passed away.

Sadly, very little of the old charm of the Forty Fort Theatre remains. New generations probably don't even know it was a movie house at one time. Although the outside hasn't changed too much, with the exception of the removed marquee, the inside has been completed altered. A second floor and an elevator were installed in the late 1980s. It houses mostly medical offices today.

Thomas F. Alexander still lives in Forty Fort with his wife and children and owns and operates a successful computer consulting business.

Thomas C. Alexander moved to South Florida in 1996 to work in the media industry. In 2001 he founded Alexander Productions, a media content and music company, and last year formed Forty Fort Films, the animation and film arm of Alexander Productions.

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