The Comerford in Wilkes-Barre proudly boasted in 1938 that it was Pennsylvania’s finest theatre
Michael E. Comerford (1865-1939) was a key player in the movie industry in the United States in the 1920s and the 1930s. He was the President and General Manager of the Comerford Theaters, Inc., one of the first cinema chains in Pennsylvania.
His company once owned and operated 78 theatres or cinemas, mainly in eastern Pennsylvania but a few were in New York and Maryland, including the Paramount and the Capitol cinemas.
Comerford was also a founder of the Motion Picture Theatre Owners of America and a director of the Scranton Chamber of Commerce. In 1937 he was President of the Amalgamated Vaudeville Agency, Inc, which had it central booking office at 1600 Broadway, New York, and he also had offices in Scranton
Michael E. Comerford traced his origins to Co Kilkenny. He was born into a family of Pennsylvania coalminers, who migrated from Kilkenny to Pennsylvania in the mid-19th century.
Comerford, the seventh of ten children, was born in 1865 in the village of Heckscherville (Cass Township), Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. He was raised in Plymouth, Pennsylvania, and later settled in the Scranton area of Pennsylvania.
His father, John Comerford (ca 1820/1827-1880) was born in Co Kilkenny, and was an anthracite coal miner. He emigrated to the US, and married Catherine Devey, also from Co Kilkenny, in Saint Kieran’s Church, Heckscherville, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, in 1850. John died in 1880 and is buried in St Vincent’s Cemetery in Pennsylvania.
John and Catherine Comerford had ten children, five daughters and five sons:
1, Ellen (1851-1916), born in 1851 in Heckscherville. She married David Walker (1848-1902), and they are both buried in Saint Patrick’s Cemetery, Butte, Silver Bow County, Montana. They were the parents of six children:
● 1a, Katherine (1875-1950), who married John W Cotter (1861-1903), of Boston, Massacussetts.
● 2a, (Judge) Thomas Joseph Walker (1878-1945).Born 25 March 1878. Educated All Hallows’ College, Salt Lake City, Georgetown University (classical studies), and he University of Virginia (LL.B, 1902). In September 1940, he was appointed a judge of the US customs court in New York. He married on 7 June 1905 Maud Galen, daughter of Hugh and Matilda Galen of Helena. They had no children.
● 3a, Mary (Mollie) (1885-1945), married in 1934 Clyde Graves of Spokane.
● 4a, Frank Comerford Walker (1886-1959), US Postmaster General (1940-1945) and chairman of the Democratic National Committee (1943-1944).
● 5a, Nellie (1891-1940), of Butte, Montana, married John C Gaul (1886-1950), and had a daughter and a son: Ellen M Gaul (1915-1997), who married firstly, James Walter Smart (died 1951), and secondly Everett Earl Crawford (1909-1980); and James Walker Gaul (1922-2010).
● 6a, Margaret Petronella (Pet) (1893-1963); educated Saint Patrick’s School, Butte, Montana, and Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart, Purchase, New York; she married John J McCarthy of Boston and Greenwich, Connecticut.
2, Patrick J Comerford (1853-1926). He was born on 18 March 1853 in Hecksherville. He married Ellen M Brown and they were the parents of ten children, including Sister Helen Patricia Comerford (1902-1998); she studied home economics and nutrition at Marywood College (BSc, 1924), and completed further study at Columbia University and Saint Mary Hospital, Rochester, Minnesota; She was as an Administrative and Therapeutic Dietician at Saint Joseph Hospital, Carbondale (1932-1987) and taught nutrition and diet therapy to nurses at the hospital. She was a registered dietician and member of the American Dietetic Association, the Northeastern Pennsylvania Dietetic Association and the National League of Nursing.
3, ( The Revd) Thomas J Comerford (1855-1924). He was born in 1855 in Heckscherville, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. educated at Wyoming Seminary, Kingston, studied classics and philosophy at Saint Vincent’s College, Pittsburgh, and theology at Saint Mary’s Seminary, Cleveland, Ohio, and the Grand Seminary, Montreal, Canada. He was ordained priest at Scranton, Pennsylvania, on 16 November 1882, and was assistant pastor of Saint Peter’s Cathedral, Scranton, for a year. He was then transferred to Wilkes-Barre, where he was assistant pastor of Saint Mary’s Church. In October 1887, he was appointed pastor of Saint John’s Church, Troy, Pennsylvania. From 1892 to 1924, he was the parish priest at Saint Thomas Aquinas Parish, Archbald, Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania. In 1902, during the great coal strike, Father Comerford openly and vigorously espoused the cause of the miners. He was an intimate friend of John Mitchell (1870-1919), President of the United Mine Workers’ Union, and he baptised him. Mitchell died in 1919 in Mount Vernon, New York, and Father Comerford was Deacon at his funeral in Saint Peter’s Cathedral, Scranton. He died on 3 October 1924 at Arachbald, Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania.
4, Mary Ann, born on 18 August 1859 in Heckscherville. She married Timothy Collins.
5, Catherine, born on 12 May 1861 in Heckscherville.
6, John Comerford (1863- ), born on 30 September 1863 in Heckscherville. He married Mary Gaiten.
7, Michael E Comerford (1865-1939), born in 1865 in Heckscherville. He married Margaret Walters.
8, Andrew J Comerford (1868- ), born on 25 June 1868 in Heckscherville.
9, Alice, born on 18 July 1870 in Heckscherville.
10, Margaret, born on 17 May 1872 in Heckscherville. She married Matthew Cary.
The cinema and movie industry
The modern American movie palace, as it evolved in the early 20th century, rapidly became a fixture in the medium to large city. Important as a means of affordable entertainment and a recognisable part of the urban cityscape, the movie palace was a major part of the movie ideology, coming from Hollywood, California, which made the American cinema more than a pastime.
The architecture of the movie palace was lavished with an abundance of eclectic ornament, making new reference to historic architectural styles as well as the latest art deco forms.
The Poli theatres in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, were founded by Sylvester Z. Poli, an immigrant from Italy who arrived in the US at the age of 23 in 1881 and who later became a millionaire. His cinemas were acquired in 1924 and 1925 by the Union Theater Company, which was operated by Michael E. Comerford’s Comerford Amusement company.
Comerford Theater, Scranton
Local nuns at the premiere of The Trouble with Angels in the Comerford Theater in Scranton in 1966
The Comerford Theater on Wyoming Avenue in Scranton, Pennsylvania, first opened its doors on 16 September 1937, bringing Scranton into a new age of theatre. The new cinema was built on the site of the former Ritz Theater, and had its origins in the Poli Theater and the likes of comedienne Fanny Brice, dancers Fred and Adele Astaire, Jack Benny and Will Rogers.
S.Z. Poli sold his theatre to the Comerford Chain in 1925. Comerford attracted the vaudeville circuit to his theatres in Binghamton, Wilkes-Barre, Hazleton and Pottsville. But this was the age of the motion picture, and the 1,800-seat Comerford was destined for a long history as one of the finest of downtown Scranton’s movie houses.
The Comerford chain operated the theatre as the Ritz until it decided to rebuild in 1937. On the opening night of the new cinema that September, two queues formed along Wyoming Avenue as patrons waited for the opening.
A brilliantly-lit corridor of bevelled mirrors led to double doors that opened into the the foyer, where two grand staircases with ornamental bronze railings led to the mezzanine. Murals decorated the walls, plush carpeting covered the floors, and lighting effects lent an atmosphere that befitted what was then one of the most modern and elegant theatres in the US. The new Comerford Theater’s projection booths held Simplex projectors, with sound heads attached, as well as two effect and spot machines. Together, they produced a picture and sound quality found in very few theatres in Pennsylvania.
However, Comerford had not completely abandoned the stage in favour of the motion pictures. In fact, the new stage was considerably larger than the one in the original Ritz, with a proscenium arch measuring 44 ft by 30 ft and a stage 80 ft wide and 40 ft deep. The balcony was supported by the largest steel girder the city had seen, and glazed terra cotta tiles formed the façade. The elegant building accommodated theatre-goers who wished to take full advantage of the facility, its lounges and smoking rooms. As many as 200 people could make use of the mezzanine, with its lounge chairs, desks and even telephones.
An air-conditioning system – an innovation at the time – cooled the premises for summertime comfort. Patrons were assured that the system’s Freon gas was odourless and harmless.
At 1 p.m., Michael E. Comerford welcomed guests and promised them they would “always find clean, wholesome entertainment” in his theatre.
The show began with the Movie News, followed by a comedy, Hawaiian Holiday, and an action drama, Soak the Rich. The feature film on that opening day was Double or Nothing, starring Bing Crosby and Martha Raye.
Comerford Theater, Wilkes-Barre
A Comerford Theater notice from Wilkes-Barre in 1946
The Comerford Theater in Public Square, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, was also founded by Michael E. Comerford. Comerford had grown up less then two miles from Wilkes-Barre, and so he was regarded as one of the city’s “own”.
The Comerford Theater in Wilkes-Barre opened to considerable media attention on 18 August 1938 as the largest, best-equipped, and most modern movie palace in the city, and is the only survivor of the city’s three movie palaces. The Comerford was designed in a Deco-Moderne stylised ziggurat composition, and was faced with terracotta tile and green marble. The interior features include a foyer panelled in walnut, an auditorium and loge finished in walnut and translucent marble panels, and ornamental plasters and bronze throughout.
The Comerford Theater in Wilkes-Barre
The deco-moderne architecture of the Comerford in Wilkes-Barre is rare in the Wyoming Valley and its significance as the major architectural legacy of depression-era Wilkes-Barre is related to the city’s unique history and reliance on anthracite for its economy.
In the public eye in Wilkes-Barre at least, the Comerford Theater was the most luxurious in the area, outdoing those in Scranton, Hazleton or other towns in north-east Pennsylvania.
Comerford Theater, Williamsport
The Comerford Theater in Williamsport
In Williamsport, the modern façade of the Community Arts Center hides the historic grandeur of the former Comerford Theater.
Behind the façade is a theatre that has been meticulously restored to its 1928 glory, a fusion of Oriental, Spanish and English revival styles. Once considered the most beautiful theatre in the of the Pennsylvania Comerford Theater chain, the theatre in Williamsport suffered during the 1936 flood. With no finances to repair the theatre, layers of paint were used to cover the damage.
End of the Comerford theatres
Michael Comerford married Margaret Walters in 1912 and they had a daughter named Mariel. He died in January 1939 in Miami, Florida, and was buried in Saint Vincent de Paul Cemetery, Larksville, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, after a funeral mass celebrated by Bishop William J Hafey in Saint Peter’s Cathedral, Scranton.
In 1949, the Comerford Corporation was subject to an anti-trust suit and had to divest itself of a number of its theatres. On 2 September 1949, the Comerford Theater in Wilkes-Barre became the Paramount, which was the first cinema in the region to use air-conditioners.
When the theatre was threatened with destruction three decades ago, local residents formed STOP (Save The Old Paramount) and succeeded in having the old Comerford Theater added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
In 1985, Albert Boscov, the owner of one of the largest, privately-owned department store chains in the US, came to the financial rescue. A few years earlier he had bought one of Wilkes-Barre’s last remaining downtown department stores (Fowler, Dick and Walker – The Boston Store), which became his first multi-storied store and one of the most profitable in the Boscov’s chain for many years. 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, he began to meet local business and civic leaders to put together a drive to acquire the property and raise the necessary $4.3 million to open the doors once again to the public.
The theatre was rehabilitated after being damaged in Hurricane Agnes and it is now the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts, located at 71 Public Square, in Wilkes-Barre.
By 1950, the Comerford in Scranton needed a facelift. After a brief renovation period, the theatre reopened in March 1950, with new pushback seats, carpets and flooring, glass doors and lighting fixtures for the stage.
But eventually, the Comerford in Scranton passed into other hands when declining business forced its owners, Sportservice Theaters, to sell it in 1977. Plans were drawn up to renovate the building to accommodate retail shops and a much smaller theatre. The complex took the name it was first given it by Michael E. Comerford – the Ritz.
Although the days of the elegant theatre are gone, the complex lives on with a new theatre space that features a variety of entertainment, including movies, musicals and improvised performances.
Like so many similar theatres, the Comerford in Williamsport endured hardship in the 1960s and 1970s. It was rescued when the Pennsylvania College of Technology and the City of Williamsport pledged money to restore it. The doors re-opened once again in 1993, and the theatre today continues to draw people downtown for shows, ranging from children’s movies, to concerts by Yo Yo Ma and Aretha Franklin.
© Patrick Comerford 2009, 2013, 2016. Last updated 9.11.2009, 5.01.2013, 29.01.2016, 30.01.2016.