After George Burns released his book "Living It Up: Or, They Still Love Me In Altoona!" in 1976, it became a well-known fact that the famous late actor and comedian held a special place in his heart for performing in the local area.
It was always assumed Burns performed one of his first vaudevillian acts at the Mishler Theatre, as it was one of the biggest and most well-known theaters in the area then and still is today.
But now, in his 250-page book titled "Theatres of Altoona and Blair County," writer and Altoona native Michael Farrow is poised to debunk that myth, as well as identify and provide the history behind more than 150 local theaters that once held other famous actors, Broadway shows and the first motion pictures on their stages and screens.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Michael Farrow, author of a book on historic theaters in the area, stands in front of the stage of the former Colonial Theatre in Altoona. Today, the building is used as a warehouse by Klesius & Sheedy Heating and Roofing.
During more than three years of research and writing, Farrow uncovered many interesting facts about local movie theaters, playhouses and opera houses. The performance that made Burns so fond of Altoona actually took place in the Orpheum Theatre. Burns was 18 years old and performed under the name Willie Saks.
"He came because the vaudeville actor [that was supposed to perform] was sick, and the manager of this theater called George up in New York and said, 'Could you come today?'" Farrow said. "He jumped on a train and made it in time for the matinee. He did his little skit, and he was so successful that the audience applauded and thought he was great. The manager asked him to stay the rest of the week. Then, he went back to New York and got another call from another theater. .. He said, 'I'll do the same act as I did in Altoona.' It was a flop, they booed him off the stage.
"But he said he never got discouraged because every time he got discouraged he would say, 'But they love me in Altoona.'"
If you go
What: "Theatres of Blair County" lecture by local author Michael Farrow
When: Noon Thursday
Where: Altoona Area Public Library
Details: Free and open to the public
As an avid collector of historical postcards of Blair County, Farrow said he got the idea to write the book because he rarely found cards that identified the theaters. At first, Farrow thought he might find evidence of a dozen or so, but research and word of mouth led him to discover that there were 93 theaters in Altoona, 14 in Hollidaysburg, 15 in Tyrone, nine in Bellwood and from one to a handful each in Claysburg, Duncansville, Martinsburg, Williamsburg, Roaring Spring, Tipton and Newry.
"You blink, and you're through Newry. Who would've thought they had an opera house," he said.
Many of these historical theaters are gone - gutted and turned into the warehouses, apartments or office buildings that stand today. But some of the most surprising things Farrow found through his research were about the vestiges that still remain of these historic theaters in some unlikely places.
For instance, the Klesius & Sheedy Heating and Roofing Co., located on Eighth Avenue in Altoona, uses the stage from what was the Colonial Theatre as a storage space in their warehouse.
The building, built in 1917, still has a sloped floor from when it was a movie theater.
"That was one of the most surprising things I found, just to discover it was still there," Farrow said.
Farrow found the facts and photos for his book by pouring over tax records, deed books, old newspapers and files kept by the Blair County Historical Society and the Blair County Genealogical Society. He thinks anyone will enjoy reading the book, and seeing the old photos and advertisements on almost every page. But local history buffs especially will enjoy reading about each of the different theaters and their histories, he added.
"I think they'll be really surprised to see how many really famous people, if they're familiar with show business, really appeared in Altoona," Farrow said.
Farrow wants to print 1,000 color copies of the book - a cost of approximately $12,000. Farrow wants all of the proceeds from the selling of the book to benefit the Blair County Historical Society, of he is a board member. He set up a fund through the Central Pennsylvania Community Foundation in order to solicit tax-deductible donations from the community.
Jeannine Treese, the executive director of the Blair County Historical Society, said it is a "wonderful book" that will greatly benefit the society with the expenses associated with heating, cooling and maintaining the four local sites they run.
"It's very generous of him and we do appreciate it," she said. "We rely on [donations] quite heavily. ... Everyone knows in this economy, nonprofits are hurting and grants are drying up."
Checks for donations to the printing of the book can be made payable to the Central Pennsylvania Community Foundation, and can be sent to 1330 11th Ave., Altoona, 16601. Farrow will give a free guest lecture at noon on Thursday at the Altoona Area Public Library.
Mirror Staff Writer Beth Ann Downey is at 946-7520.