Saturday 20 June 2009

Comerford Profiles 30: Michael E Comerford (1865-1939), cinema proprietor

The Comerford in Wilkes-Barre proudly boasted in 1938 that it was Pennsylvania’s finest theatre

Patrick Comerford


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

Family origins

Michael E Comerford was the seventh of ten children born to parents from Co Kilkenny

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.


JeanneHP said...

Upon graduation in 1953 I went to work for Comforford Theatres as Secretary to John Roberts, head booker to first run theatres. At the time there were approximately 45 theatres. We occupied three floors of the Mears Building in Scranton. I started on the eight floor and worked out of the tenth at the time I left. I remember that Tom and Bill Comerford were there at the time. My grandfather, Michael Hannon had connections with M E Comerford. Years back. I believe he was instrumental in building some of the theatres. He was a big shot in the ironworkers union. When I went back to visit a few years later, the offices were upstairs over the Globe Theatre in South Scranton. Decline of the movie theatres as we knew them.

Unknown said...

This site has given me chills. I am the great grandson of Thomas Collins and Mary Ann Comerford and I remember shoveling snow for Aunt Cathering and Aunt Alice as a young boy.vTo see these names in print brings back so many wonderful memories of growing up in Scranton and being a part of the theaters and the family.

RTKgoddess said...

My 3rd great-grandmother was Alice Comerford Murphy. She was a sister of John Comerford, M.E. Comerford's father. Is there somewhere to view the genealogy research for the family back to Ireland? Thank you.

Unknown said...

Nothing about the Comerford theater in Clarks Summit??

Unknown said...

Truly, my heart was so happy reading this. My Great Great Grandfather was Patrick Comerford (m. Ellen Brown). I remember Sister Helen when i was much younger, she was so loved by our family. My great Grandfather, Michael B Comerford (nephew of M.E. Comerford) was an integral part of the theater, and subsequently, my late grandfather, Michael B. Comerford II and his siblings were the last Comerfords who were active partners in the business. Our family is extremely tight-knit, and i'm fortunate enough to have grown up hearing stories about my family, so glad that this is being written about!

Unknown said...

To Leila Comerford:

My Great-Grandfather was also Patrick Comerford, married to Ellen Brown, my Grandmother was Helen Comerford Brennan, She married John T.J. Brennan, who was a lawyer in Wilkes Barre. I'm guessing I knew Sister Helen Patricia better than you, just considering the age difference. Let me know if you want to get in touch via email and we can arrange it. Nice post.

John Brennan

Unknown said...

Mary Ann Comerford married my great grandfather, Timothy Collins. My grandfather Thomas and my father Thomas Jr both worked for the theaters in the 1950s and early 60s. My brother and I used to go to the Saturday matinee almost every week.

I know my grandfather and Michael B. were close and Hannon sounds like a familiar name but it was so long ago and I was so young. I do remember shoveling snow for my aunt Catherine. Seems there were two other aunts who lived with her?

I also remember my GF going to the funeral for Frank Walker, the postmaster general who was a relative through the Comerfords.

Tom Collins

Jim Comerford said...

My great great grand parents were John and Catherine Comerford. Great grand parents were Patrick and Ellen Comerford. Grand parents were Dr. Joe and Mary (Doran) Comerford. Parents were Dr. Jim and Claire (Murray) Comerford. Sister Helen Patricia visited our family in California with her sister Helen Comerford Brennan in the late 70's. (I have great photos!) Without yet accessing any of the geneaology web sites, I have pieced together some good info from family keepsakes and other sources, including Barney Comerford's book, "Demographic History of the Comerfords". I've enjoyed pilgimmages to Balybur Castle, IR and Sr. Kiernan's Cemetary, Hecksherville, PA, where I believe John and Catherine Comerford are buried. I would like to hear from and share info with any family members. I'm particularly interested in John Comerford's life prior to immigrating from Ireland around 1850, where I believe he may have worked as a tenant coal miner for the Wandesforde family near Castlecomer.

Jim Comerford

nathaniellacellepeterson said...

Hi everyone,

this is an awesome project, and I think tis really important to preserve this memory and history. I'm a researcher working on movie distribution and theater companies in the 1940s and 50s; if anyone remembers information about the prices at different Comerford theaters, or has any documents related to the Comerford Theater Co, I would love to talk!

Thanks so much,
Nathaniel LaCelle-Peterson

Anonymous said...

I am Dan Comerford, born in Lansing MI in 1944. My father, also Dan Comerford, was born in or near Detroit/Royal Oak area of Michigan. My sister and i have been trying to get a complete family tree, but keep running into roadblocks in that we cannot bridge a gap in the mid 1800's to 1900. Seems lots of records were lost in a major Dublin fire. Can you help?