Chris Rosenblum: Couple give Millheim theater new life

They used to line up on Penn Street down to the corner.

Millworkers, craftsmen, farmers, shopkeepers, adults, children: They all waited along the sidewalk to step into the Millheim Theatre and an afternoon or night of entertainment.

The lines vanished long ago, but Mark and Cyndy Engle this year hope to restore some of the glory days to a faded beauty.

For 20 years, the Engles have owned the former concert hall and cinema in the heart of Millheim. Since 2002, they’ve made it their home, occupying the lobby and second floor.

Most of that time, the theater itself was a cavernous storage room — just a fancy garage, really, filled with the Engles’ belongings and material tied to their computer repair business, PC Medics & Co.

They always dreamed of clearing everything out, opening the way toward the theater becoming a venue again. Life went on; the theater continued its slumber.

Their daughter provided the wake-up call.

She wanted to get married. In the theater. In less than a year.

Her father’s response: “Yeah, that’s great. But we have a little project to do.”

Away went the stuff. An online auction trimmed the mass. So did numerous trips to thrift stores.

“We kept the local Goodwill and other outlets pretty well-stocked,” Mark Engle said.

They pulled off the Herculean task in time for an August wedding. Now, with the wooden stage and 374 ornate iron and leather seats uncovered, the Engles are embarking on reuniting the Millheim community with an old love.

In December, they got off to a good start. The couple hosted the Festival of Trees: The 12 Trees of Christmas, displaying giant decorated trees ablaze in holiday cheer around the stage.

Though there was no heat, neither the trees nor the many appreciative visitors seemed to mind.

“I hadn’t seen the inside of the theatre in years, although I spent many a Sat. night in it as a teenager and my first apt. in 1968 was right next door to it,” posted Elaine Wolfe Christensen to the theater’s Facebook page.

Looking ahead, the Engles want to open their doors more to the community, bringing back former patrons to share memories and drawing new ones to create future remembrances.

It’s a work in progress, but the Engles already can count a cheerful lobby as a success. An Art Deco ticket booth in pristine condition dominates the room, and black and white photos of Hollywood icons hang on the walls. Original 1920s linoleum flooring covers yellow pine boards placed in 1923.

That year, Millheim’s source of pride opened. Women had started the building six years before while all their men were away fighting World War I. Eventually, for the princely sum of $32,000, the town boasted a busy gathering place for concerts, movies, speeches, even high school graduations.

But by the late 1970s, times had changed.

No longer was Millheim a hub of commerce and activity. The theater withered, then closed. For a brief spell in the early 1980s, an intrepid soul tried to revive it with movies, but it didn’t take.

Woodward Camp owned the building, using it for storage and auxiliary office space, in 1995 when the Engles made an offer. Living in Pleasant Gap at the time, they needed more space for their home-based business and fell in love with the romance of rundown, but not decrepit, theater.

“It’s a solid building,” Cyndy Engle said. “It was meant to be here forever.”

In that vein, they’re continuing to bring the theater back to life.

When they took ownership in 1995, a renovation would have seemed foolish. Millheim’s downtown, while not dead, was slipping away.

Times, though, have changed again.

Of late, Millheim has been experiencing a blossoming renaissance. The Elk Creek Cafe + Aleworks, the Green Drake Gallery and Arts Center and the IngleBean Coffee House, among other establishments, have infused the town with a lively, artistic spirit, creating a daily destination for visitors and sparking cultural festivals.

The Engles think a restored theater fits right into the picture, especially when it’s across the street from the stately St. Luke’s Cultural Center, a former Methodist church turned into a concert and rehearsal hall.

Marah, a nationally-respected roots music band whose members live in the area, recorded its 2013 album “Marah Presents Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania” in the center. Mark Engle can imagine musicians rehearsing there, then coming over to the theater as part of variety shows.

“We could have ‘Penns Valley Home Companion,’ ” he said, playing off Garrison Keillor’s long-running show “A Prairie Home Companion.”

But as far as they’ve come, the Engles still have a way to go.

They have a solid tin roof over the theater, thanks to much sweat on their part, but no heat or air conditioning. They have antique light fixtures and wall sconces but no working electrical wiring inside the walls.

The curved stage and seats are in good shape — preserved, the Engles joke, by being buried for years — but basement bathrooms would be necessary to meet code for an operating venue. At some point, the couple probably will need to remove the remaining furniture and assorted bric-a-brac cluttering the back of the stage.

For now, they trot downstairs every morning from their home, which includes the former balcony, and little by little chip away at a vision.

“It’s a labor of love, slowly but surely,” Mark Engle said. “But we’d like to see something happen with it.”