Standing tall and proud on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre stands the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts. Built as a movie theater in 1938, the Kirby Center replaced a bus terminal, drug store, printing company, and stonecutter.
The Comerford theater was named after Michael E. Comerford, the general manager of one of Pennsylvania’s first cinema chains. He also founded the Motion Picture Theatre Owners of America and was a director of the Scranton Chamber of Commerce.
Born in Schuylkill County, Michael eventually settled in Scranton where he held offices for Amalgamated Vaudeville Agency, Inc. in addition to their NYC offices.
He was the founder of Comerford Theaters, Inc. and owned and operated almost 80 theaters and cinemas throughout eastern Pennsylvania, New York, and Maryland.
After the success of the Comerford Theater in Scranton, another opened in Wilkes-Barre on August 18, 1928. It was the most modern and equipped cinema in the city and received rave reviews. Another Comerford theater opened in Williamsport in 1928 as well.
From the Comerford Cinema came the F.M. Kirby Center. It is the only survivor of the three movie palaces in Wilkes-Barre from that time.
The building was designed in Art Deco architecture featuring marble, terracotta tiles, walnut wood, and lush carpeting.
On September 2, 1949, the Comerford Cinema became the Paramount. It also installed air conditioning and was the first cinema in the area to add that luxury. The theater was nearly destroyed before locals rallied together and formed STOP (Save The Old Paramount). They succeeded and the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places, which it was in 1978.
In 1985, the late Albert Boscov—of the Boscov stores—met with local leaders and representatives, including Petroleum Service Company founder August Simms (grandfather to the current president of Lewith & Freeman). Their goal was to raise more than $4 million to save the theater, which was then restored from damage caused by the flood of 1972. After these renovations, the theater was renamed the F.M. Kirby Center and its doors were reopened to the public on September 19, 1986.
The building underwent another renovation in 2006, this time with the goal to restore it to its original splendor. Photos of the original interior were used to achieve the goal, which included hand-painted wallpaper, red velvet seats, and more.
Today, the theater still shows movies but hosts concerts, comedy acts, and more throughout the year. This is a video of Foreigner playing at the Kirby in 2016:
It’s still located in the original building, right in the heart of Wilkes-Barre, and so many locals hold fond memories of times at there. This theater transcends generations and connects So many people. Grandparents and grandchildren can share memories from the same theater with eath other, even though their experiences were years apart.
The F.M. Kirby Center is one of my favorite places in the area. You can clearly see the rich history in its furnishings and architecture. I have memories as far back as seeing Sesame Street Live there and more recently Grace Potter and a Nosferatu showing for Halloween. It holds a special place in so many peoples’ hearts.
Kayleigh is a content writer with a BA in technical writing/literature and an MA in creative writing. When she’s not at work writing, she’s at home writing, reading, or binge-watching television shows… for research, of course. A big do-it-yourselfer and crafter, Kayleigh loves testing out projects and gifting them to friends and family—all in preparation for when she owns her own home one day and decorates with her own personal creations. Her work has appeared on The Writing Cooperative and as an Honorable Mention in East Meets West American Writers Review.