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A cinema classic

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MELISSA YERKOV / WIRE PHOTO
The Hiway Theatre is a member-supported, nonprofit movie theater.

By Melissa Yerkov

Wire Executive Editor

It’s had many different names, has been owned by a variety of proprietors and underwent countless renovations. But even after 100 years of evolution, one thing has remained the same.

The Hiway Theater is still a cornerstone of Jenkintown and eastern Montgomery County.

Located on Old York Road, the theater has evolved and expanded immensely since its construction in 1913. Today, it functions as a member-supported, nonprofit movie theater. It is one of the few one-screen theaters in the state and is equipped with 320 seats.

Currently, the Hiway Theater has approximately 1,000 household members and about 40,000 patrons annually. The single-theater building screens an average of 20 shows on a weekly basis.

“We are a nonprofit, so we accept donations. That’s why we have memberships. They function, in a sense, as donations,” explained Executive Director Fred Kaplan-Mayer. “We have ten employees. We do have volunteers that help, but everyone that works behind the counter or in the booth is an employee.”

The Board of Directors for the Hiway Theater is comprised of 10 volunteers. In fact, there are only two full-time employees who operate the Hiway Theater — Kaplan-Mayer and the general manager, Alison Silverman.

The Hiway Theater officially became a nonprofit in November 2003. In 2006, the building underwent massive renovations that restored the historic theater to its former glory. The six-month makeover included new seating for the auditorium, new projection and sound equipment and an expansion of the lobby.

“The fact that this made it to 2003 was remarkable. Believe me, it was not in good shape,” explained Kaplan-Mayer. “The renovation was not a vanity project. It was necessary. There was police tape around some of the chairs and dirt on the floor. It was really in sad shape.”

The in-depth renovation was made possible through the Reel to Real Campaign, an outreach effort that encouraged donations from the community. It took two years to raise the funds needed for the project and on Feb. 17, 2007, the theater officially reopened.

Currently, the Hiway Theater is working toward another major transformation project — going digital. A Screen Saver campaign has been launched to help raise money so the Hiway Theater can be converted to digital projection.

“This is not happening without community support. It wouldn’t be possible,” explained Kaplan-Mayer.

According to the Old York Road Historical Society, the Hiway Theater was originally designed by architect Albert F. Schenck and branded as The Jenkintown Auditorium. In 1925, the interior of the theater underwent reconstruction to raise the ceilings by eliminating offices on the second floor. That same year, the theater — known at that time as The Embassy Theater — started screening movies exclusively. The films were silent. In 1929, sound was added to the theater.

In 1936, the theater experienced another name change. It was known as the York Road Theater for two years before earning its most well-known name, The Hiway Theater, which it held from 1940 to ’83.

Irvin Merlin purchased the theater in 1985 and named it after himself, The Merlin Theater. During his ownership, the building underwent sound upgrades and new seating. The building’s final private owner was Charles Peruto, who named it after his son, Chas III. That is, until 2003, when the theater was deemed a community nonprofit.

“The community has made it possible for the Hiway to exist. In return, the Hiway is helping Jenkintown thrive as a community,” said Kaplan-Mayer. “I think the Hiway is a unique institution. It proves that a movie theater can be vital to a small downtown community, even today.

“I think it’s important for fundamental reasons. It’s an economic driver for this particular area,” he continued. “And the fact that we’re still here is amazing. We are a one-screen movie house that is still here. It’s kind of a chicken and egg relationship. It’s important to the community because what it can do for the community but it’s here because of the community.”

Today, the theater continues to thrive within its Montgomery County community. There is an abundance of special events held regularly, in addition to screenings of major motion pictures and documentaries.

A film discussion group takes place the second Monday of each month immediately following the 7 p.m. screening. On Feb. 17, there will be a sing-a-long event for the Hiway Theater’s screening of Little Shop of Horrors. Moviegoers can come in costume and win a prize. And on Feb. 24, residents can attend Oscar Night at the Hiway for a live simulcast of the Academy Awards.

“People think of this as their theater,” said Kaplan-Mayer. “People don’t go to a Regal or an AMC and think of it as their theater. People really do think that about the Hiway, even to the point of coming out and asking to turn the heat up or the volume down. That’s how comfortable people are here. I think that’s what makes it so special.”

The Hiway Theatre is located at 212 Old York Rd. in Jenkintown. For more information, call 215–886–9800 or visit www.hiwaytheatre.org.

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