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Monday at the Movies: The Colonial Theatre

Hi there, Hollywooders! If you’re anything like me, you’ve always got your eyes peeled for independent, local theaters to see a movie and spend your money. Knowing that my dollars are going to local film establishments instead of large chain theaters always makes my movie-going experience a bit sweeter. So why don’t you join me today on a little trip back in time, or at least, the closest thing we can get to a theater back in Hollywood’s golden age. Today, Hollywood.com is taking you to Pennsylvania’s famed Colonial Theatre. 


Where is The Colonial Theatre?

PHOENIXVILLE, PA: The historic Colonial Theatre is located in downtown Phoenixville, 28 miles from Philadelphia, in Chester County, Pennsylvania. A mere 40-minute drive from Philadelphia and roughly two hours from New York City (depending on the traffic), Phoenixville is on the Schuylkill River, while the French Creek intersects the town. Like the Colonial Theatre itself, the town of Phoenixville matches its name, having endured a notable and victorious rebirth. The former industrial hub was home to a slew of formidable iron and steel mills in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although, upon the closure of these mills and businesses, Phoenixville took a serious economic dip in the latter half of the twentieth century. In the early 2000s, Phoenixville had a renaissance of sorts, one that transformed it into the quaint getaway town that was ranked one of the “10 Most Charming Towns in Pennsylvania” by Travel Magazine in February. It is also a haven for craft beer fans, with over ten craft breweries in the zip code. Fun fact: “Downtown Phoenixville has more craft breweries per square foot than anywhere else in America.” (If you’re a craft beer AND classic film aficionado, start planning your trip now!)

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If you find yourself driving down the main drag of Phoenixville, the Colonial Theatre is nearly impossible to miss. It’s in the bustling heart of the bucolic suburb, right on Bridge Street. Situated adjacent to several Irish pubs and historic eateries and directly across the street from (the adorable) Reads & Company bookstore, The Colonial Theatre couldn’t be more perfectly situated for foot traffic. Its central location makes it ideally convenient to pop in and catch a flick (or an entire movie marathon) after an afternoon of strolling through this historic riverside town.

Public transportation is available by bus from Center City, Philadelphia via King of Prussia for out-of-towners looking to make the trip. For those coming from points north, regional buses and rails are available to Center City, near the connecting bus route. Metered parking is available on Bridge Street outside the theater and it’s free on Sundays! (Although you’ll be hard-pressed to find an open spot during busy hours.) There are also multiple parking lots within short walking distance from the theatre. 

The Colonial Theatre’s storied history

It is worth noting that the history page on the Colonial’s website is hands down THE most detailed and compelling “about” page I have maybe ever come across in my history of exploring website’s “about” pages. Honestly, great stuff; highly recommend. I’m not kidding! There’s a timeline and it is *thorough.* To an applause-worthy degree! 

The original Colonial Opera House was built at the turn of the 20th century and showed its first stage show in September of 1903. It was a popular stop on the Vaudeville circuit and numerous Broadway shows of the era had a run at the Colonial Theatre before transitioning to Broadway. The infamously controversial film Birth of A Nation premiered there in 1915 and the famous Harry Houdini even performed before an audience of 300 at the Colonial in 1917. By 1928, the very first “talkie,” The Jazz Singer, premiered at the theater, ushering in an era of modern cinema that brought the Colonial Opera House even more community renown and financial security. Not only did the Colonial survive both World Wars and the Great Depression, but it also gained national renown in 1958 with the release of a sci-fi horror flick The Blob. 

The Colonial Theatre: Home of The Blob

Classic film buffs may immediately recognize the Colonial Theatre’s exterior from the cult favorite film, The Blob, starring a young Steve (then Steven) McQueen. The Blob, which marked McQueen’s debut in a starring role, was filmed in and around Phoenixville, and the interior and exterior of the Colonial Theatre feature in the film’s climactic scene. 

Micaeli Rourke

The appearance of the theatre’s balcony and front marquee remain relatively unchanged, making the Colonial Theatre a popular pilgrimage location for fans of the film. In fact, based on the film’s lasting popularity, and Phoenixville’s resulting claim to cinematic niche infamy, the Colonial Theatre played host to Phoenixville’s annual Blobfest for the past 22 years. The three-day festival has events all over downtown Phoenixville. I’m not exaggeratingThey shut down the main street of town. Hundreds of people flood the town! It’s a big deal.

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Of course, Blobfest includes an annual screening of The Blob in The Colonial’s 1903 theatre, which appears in the film. In addition to a screaming contest and a rockabilly dance party in the Colonial’s spacious lobby, the highlight of Blobfest is the annual “runout,” a reenactment of the film’s pinnacle scene, in which Blobfest attendees annually run out of the Colonial Theatre screaming en masse. This is how I first learned of the Colonial Theatre and Blobfest, back in high school when some friends made the trip to Phoenixville dressed in costume and ready to yell. (Yes, it does look as fun as it sounds! Check out this film of the “runout” from Blobfest 2019 to see the scale of this event.) 

Micaeli Rourke

The Colonial Theatre today

The Colonial Theatre’s phoenix-like history reached another period of rebirth in 2015-2017 when, after acquiring the adjacent ‘National Bank of Phoenixville’ building that formerly housed the offices of The Phoenix newspaper, the Colonial Theatre embarked on a protean transformation that essentially doubled the size of the premises. 

Micaeli Rourke

Most importantly for fans, the renovations for this Beaux-Arts-style historic cultural landmark included two new theatres. In addition to the cavernous 1903 theatre, the Colonial now also houses the 174-set White Rabbit theatre, a blackbox-style space with retractable multi-level seating for an adaptable cinematic or theatrical experience, and the 65-seat Berry theatre, an intimate, salon-like subterranean setting built within the vault of the former bank building. (I, for one, love the look and vibe of this theatre so much so that if I ever have a biopic made about my life, its world premiere will be in the Berry theatre. If the day ever comes, it’s happening here!) 

Micaeli Rourke

The Colonial Theatre’s renovated lobby is a double-story dream that evokes Art Nouveau glamor and opulence. The snack bar includes a full bar with a number of Phoenixville’s favorite craft beers on tap. The Colonial is also making plans to stock and serve full meals, which will prove useful for the triple features and all-night movie marathons on the Colonial’s upcoming schedule.

Micaeli Rourke

A grand double-staircase (that gave me some elegant modern Titanic vibes) takes visitors to the upstairs lounge with a view of Bridge Street and an outside terrace with views of French Creek and the rest of the town. There is also an additional private room for events including private screenings, themed catered film and dinner nights, and even weddings. Yes, this movie theatre is so beautiful that people get married here. (And honestly, I can see why…This is a perfect place for two film buffs to tie the knot!)

Micaeli Rourke

The original 1903 theater, which seats just over 650 including balcony seating, truly makes visitors feel like they’re going back in time, with the dramatic ceilings and ornate wall paneling. Oh yeah, it also houses a Wurlitzer organ from 1922 (which I think is so supremely cool, by the way!) Organ fans assemble, there are two upcoming organ events at The Colonial: Accordion and Organ Extravaganza on August 21st (it’s free!) and a screening of the original The Phantom of the Opera from 1925 with a live organ accompaniment on Sunday, October 24th with Bernie Anderson at the Wurlitzer. This sounds like a truly incredible event! 

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My Colonial Theatre experience

I took a recent Thursday afternoon trip to The Colonial Theatre with my kid brother on a visit home since my family lives a few towns away. A blossoming movie buff unto himself, my brother was keen to visit the “cool, local, independent” movie theater, a far cry from the megaplexes and Movie Taverns in the area. We crossed over the Schukyvill River onto Bridge Street and I was reminded of just how beautiful downtown Phoenixville really is. An array of multi-story murals line the main drag, interspersed between craft breweries, outside cafes, and adorable boutiques that don’t blatantly scream “expensive” when peeking inside their windows. 

We found a spot right outside The Colonial, and found the theatre’s Marketing Director, Bob Trate, waiting for us beneath the marquee. Bob began at the Colonial Theatre first as a dedicated fan, then a longtime volunteer before assuming a staff position. It’s clear upon speaking with Bob that he is a man who loves what he does, and deeply believes in the profound impact that the Colonial Theatre has on the community and film fans throughout the region. 

“We like to do things that people have never done before,” Bob explains to us while taking us through the Colonial, giving us an insider tour within its hallowed walls.  

Micaeli Rourke

Perhaps it is this creative ingenuity that allowed the Colonial Theatre to continue selling tickets during the pandemic. Remarkably, the Colonial’s doors were only shut from March through July of 2020. And in a year where many independent theatres’ doors remained shut for good, the Colonial observed social distancing rules in the 1903 theater while also renting out its smaller theaters for private events and small-group screenings. Ticket prices still remained at $10, and the Berry theater was open to up to 6 people, making it an ideal and safe way for movie fans to catch an old favorite with five of their friends and family members. A few fans even decided to rent out the Berry just for themselves. 

Bob was instrumental in organizing both virtual Blobfests in 2020 and 2021 but tells me the theatre is certainly looking forward to carrying on its in-person Blobfest traditions in 2022. Although, much to the delight of the theatre’s staff, Blobfest 2020 won a Rondo Award for the Best Virtual Event in 2020. 

Although our afternoon plans to see a movie at the Colonial Theatre were eventually washed away due to pending tornado warnings and a nervous mother, my little bro and I bid Bob farewell under the Colonial’s famous marquee feeling as if we had just gone on the coolest cinematic-historic field trip, combining the Colonial Theatre’s illustrious past with the beauty and modernity of a world-class venue. We made a pact to go back for another sibling hang session the next time I’m home again. Bob Trate also made our afternoon really special by sharing his passion and deep knowledge for the Colonial