Good Life

Rowland Theatre prepares to celebrate centennial

The Rowland Theater opened in September 1917 and will celebrate the centennial with a slate of events this year.
The Rowland Theater opened in September 1917 and will celebrate the centennial with a slate of events this year.

In June, the Rowland Theatre in Philipsburg will celebrate its centennial with a big old community bash. It’s not exactly a surprise party — at least not in the traditional sense.

The invitation has been posted in plain sight on Facebook and guests should feel free to come and go with out fear of people with party hats and gifts jumping out of the shadows.

Certain details remain in flux — there will definitely be special guest speakers and birthday cake — but as the calendar inches closer to June even the more ephemeral items on the to-do list will start to settle into a dependable shape.

Maybe this is because community-wide parties don’t really lend themselves to spontaneity. There’s too many plates spinning to allow much room for improvisation and that means that the centennial celebration will have to surprise us in the way that all centennial celebrations surprise us.

After all, one does not reach the ripe old age of 100 without a few health scares along the way.

“The theater is alive because people have come together several times since the ’70s,” Rebecca Inlow, a Rowland board member, said.

Historically speaking, the term “Rowland board member” is relatively new to popular vernacular. In 1989, after a string of owners tried and failed to turn the theater into a sustainable enterprise, the Rowland was given to the borough of Philipsburg.

A board of directors was assembled to take over daily operations and continue the original mission set forth by founder Charles Rowland more than seven decades prior.

“He envisioned plays and concerts and a well-rounded cultural facility,” board member Christine Wilson said.

In September 1917 Rowland opened his theater, the largest and most ornate in Centre County and a credit to wealthy soft coal magnates everywhere. Designed and built by architect Julian Millard and engineer W.A. Hoyt, the structure mixed the functionality of a 34-by-52 foot stage with the luxury of porcelain washstands and mahogany dressing tables.

It was built to last — which didn’t necessarily guarantee that it would.

Robert M. Sheriff had two of the many hands the Rowland passed through during the ’70s and ’80s. A graduate of Philipsburg High School and Penn State, Sheriff purchased the theater in 1981 fully aware that he was facing an economic long shot.

His was an investment in civic pride, one that the more than 1,100 people who turned up to the Rowland’s gala reopening seemed to be underwriting. By May 1982, Sheriff would concede defeat.

“The theatre has done nothing but lose money since it opened. The response to the theatre has been extremely poor and without the support of the community, it can no longer operate. I see no hope for the theatre to continue, “ Sheriff said in a 1982 CDT story.

As of 2017, the Rowland is open 364 days a year (you’ll have to make other plans for Christmas) and concerts, stage performances and movies all remain on the menu. While great pains have been taken to preserve as much of the original flavor as possible, minor concessions have been made to the future.

Digital projection technology encroached on the theater back in 2013. It was a costly but necessary expenditure in order to keep pace with the formats that studios are using to distribute their films.

The anniversary year is structured around everything the theater does best. In April, there will be a performance by Hotlanta, an Allman Brothers tribute band. Later that month, the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra will fill the pit below stage and fill out the frames of a silent movie with an original score.

Five Broadway veterans will embody the music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons toward the end of May, the last big event before the June 4 centennial celebration.

“There’s nothing more exciting for me than to walk into the theater and see a lot of people,” Wilson said.

For more on the Rowland’s centennial events, visit

Frank Ready: 814-231-4620, @fjready