Good Life

How Philipsburg’s Rowland Theatre has defied the odds through its 102-year history

One warm Monday evening in June 1917, large crowds of people gathered in downtown Philipsburg for the opening of a new theater. Other theaters had been located in town, but this playhouse was grander in scope and garnering attention in newspapers across the state.

The Rowland Theatre opened its doors that evening at 7:15 p.m., with the curtain set to open at 8 p.m. for the silent film, “Within the Law.”

U.S. Congressman Charles Rowland, a resident of Philipsburg, was the man responsible for having the magnificent playhouse built. This playhouse consisted of a large stage for traveling shows and an auditorium and balcony with seating for 1,141. The front page of Philipsburg’s newspaper, “The Daily Journal,” carried this headline the next day: “Big Crowd Admires the Rowland Theatre at Opening Monday.” The newspaper described the opening: “As people entered the theatre, they gazed with wonder and admiration at the splendor of the surroundings — elegance being displayed everywhere.”

That evening marked the opening chapter of a great story — a story that continues to be written in downtown Philipsburg. Built in the midst of World War I, the theater was one small item on Rep. Rowland’s plate in 1917. The congressman was an entrepreneur who had been approached with the idea of building a high-class theater in Philipsburg, and he rarely said no when it came to helping his town. In addition to politics, Rowland was president of the Moshannon Coal Co. and the Pittsburgh and Susquehanna Railroad, known locally as the Alleypopper. Despite his many achievements, Charles Rowland’s lasting legacy is the Rowland Theatre.

The next 102 years would be a story that has defied all odds. The theater remained in the hands of the Rowland heirs for almost 64 years. Years of disrepair caused its doors to close in 1978, and the heirs put the building up for sale. The story almost ended there, but businessman Robert Sheriff did not let that happen. He purchased the theater in 1981 and repaired, restored and reopened it. The good news lasted nine months, when finances caused the building to go up for sheriff’s sale. Another sale would occur, as would more closings.

The borough of Philipsburg stepped in to save the landmark by purchasing it in 1988. Today, the borough leases the playhouse to the Rowland Theatre, Inc., a nonprofit group of volunteers tasked with the job of running the theater. History is alive in downtown Philipsburg at the historic Rowland Theatre. The story of the theater is the story of Philipsburg and central Pennsylvania and the country. It is a tale of survival of a 1,000-seat theater in a borough with a population of 3,000.

Rebecca Inlow is a member of the Rowland Theatre, Inc., and author of “The Rowland Story.” The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Penn State — open to adults who love to learn — offers short courses in many subjects ranging from gardening to history to technology. Inlow will lead a course titled, “Tour of The Rowland Theatre” in April. To receive a free catalog of spring programs created, arranged, presented, and supported by OLLI member-volunteers, call OLLI at Penn State at 867-4278 or visit olli.psu.edu.
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