Since its grand opening, the Warner Theatre has established itself as a major cultural center for the region. Millions have passed by the freestanding ticket booth of solid bronze through the doors and stepped into the luxurious gold-gilded Grand Lobby. There they saw the beauty of rich tapestries and French gold-backed mirrors. A regal staircase with exquisite bronze banisters leads them through an archway of marble, gold gilding and draped tapestry to the mezzanine. Czechoslovakian glass and crystal chandeliers create the soft lighting that enhances the grandeur of a structure unmatched in stature, opulence and beauty.
Warner Bros., today one of the world’s largest producers of film and television entertainment, commissioned the building of the Warner Theatre in 1929. The design goal for their luxury movie palaces was to create an environment “twice as rich, three times more fanciful than life.” Designed by architects Rapp & Rapp, the theatre was constructed at a cost of $1.5 million Depression-era dollars. The Chicago architectural firm built some of the nation’s most ornate theatres including New York City’s Times Square Paramount.
Warner Bros. also appointed the world-renowned Rambusch Studios in New York City to decorate the interior. Rambusch created a lavish art deco interior that would invite generations of theatre-goers to a palace of magnificence and fantasy. Considering the quality of the design and cost of the building materials used, the theatre would be virtually impossible to replace today. It was Erie’s first and has remained Erie’s only deluxe downtown picture palace.
When the Warner Theatre opened its doors April 10, 1931, more than 8,000 colored lights illuminated the 10-ton marquee that announced the feature film of the opening evening, “The Millionaire” starring George Arliss with James Cagney. Excitement and wonder of the patrons about the palatial splendor of the breathtaking new showplace filled the atmosphere.
In its early history, the theatre hosted various traveling shows. As well as presenting the pick of the major film releases, the theatre became an important link in the vaudeville circuits of the 1930s. On November 8, 1931, the Warner formally initiated a vaudeville season. Bob Hope made an appearance that November telling stories while sitting downstage on a barrel.
The “Mighty Wurlitzer” organ that once rose out of the floor and into the corner of the orchestra pit,
provided music for vaudeville shows and accompanied the early talking motion pictures. Warner Bros. eventually donated the organ to the Western Reserve Chapter of American Theatre Organ Enthusiasts in 1969. The Cleveland Gray’s Armory Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, now houses the organ.
In 1971, Cinemette Corporation of America bought the Warner Theatre from the Stanley Warner Corporation. In 1974, the Erie Philharmonic had its first concert at the theatre. Since then, the philharmonic has continued to perform there.
Cinemette operated the Warner until 1976, when the late Erie Mayor Louis J. Tullio heard the chain might want to sell the theatre. The mayor recognized the importance of saving it from planned demolition and had a vision of a civic center complex to provide venues for sports and arts entertainment to the region. With assistance from the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, he negotiated a successful purchase of the building from Cinemette. Critical improvements were then made including installation of a new roof, restoration of lighting fixtures and rewiring of the house front and foyer areas.
In 1977, the Erie Civic Center Authority was formed and given the physical and fiscal management of the Warner Theatre, also referred to as the “Center for the Performing Arts.” With this change, the policy of the theatre once again included the production of live performances.
In 1981, the Broadway Theatre League began to bring in a series of top Broadway musicals
performed by New York-based touring companies. Additionally, the Erie Civic Ballet Company began performing on the Warner’s stage. That same year, the Warner was listed on the commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Inventory of Museums and Historical Places, and on April 13, 1982, it was placed on the National Register for Historic Places.
The Warner Theatre’s stage has been host to many world-renowned performers through its years, including:
Tori Amos, Tony Bennett, Milton Berle, Theodore Bikel, Victor Borge, George Carlin, Johnny Cash, Tom Chapin, Chicago, Nat King Cole, Harry Connick Jr., David Copperfield, Sammy Davis Jr., Jimmy Dean, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Durante, Bob Dylan, Fabian, Dan Fogelberg, Frank Fontaine, Debbie Gibson, Eydie Gorme, Hal Holbrook, Bob Hope, Marilyn Horne, Irish Rovers, Sammy Kaye, B.B. King, Peter Lawford, Steve Lawrence, Jay Leno, The Lettermen, Guy Lombardo, Howie Mandel, Dave Matthews, Johnny Mathis, Dudley Moore, Lorrie Morgan, Willie Nelson, Wayne Newton, Patti Page, Dick Powell, Vincent Price, Righteous Brothers, Mark Russell, Jerry Seinfeld, Sinbad, Sally Struthers, Paul Whiteman, Andy Williams, George Winston, Trisha Yearwood
New book about the history of Erie’s Warner Theatre: