When Hometown Was Home To 'The Blob'

From 'The Blob': Crowds flee the Colonial Theatre i i

"Healthfully Air Conditioned": It's not the climate control the Colonial Theatre crowd is fleeing in The Blob's most iconic scene. Tonlyn Productions/The Criterion Collection hide caption

itoggle caption Tonlyn Productions/The Criterion Collection
From 'The Blob': Crowds flee the Colonial Theatre

"Healthfully Air Conditioned": It's not the climate control the Colonial Theatre crowd is fleeing in The Blob's most iconic scene.

Tonlyn Productions/The Criterion Collection
Colonial Theatre marquee at night, neon lit i i

Phoenixville's Colonial Theatre, where that midnight-movie panic scene was filmed, saw hard times in the '70s and '80s. Today, it's in the process of restoration. Association for the Colonial Theatre hide caption

itoggle caption Association for the Colonial Theatre
Colonial Theatre marquee at night, neon lit

Phoenixville's Colonial Theatre, where that midnight-movie panic scene was filmed, saw hard times in the '70s and '80s. Today, it's in the process of restoration.

Association for the Colonial Theatre
Interior view of Colonial Theatre, from balcony i i

Grande dame: The auditorium at the Colonial; the seating has been overhauled, but a full interior restoration is still in the planning stages. hide caption

itoggle caption
Interior view of Colonial Theatre, from balcony

Grande dame: The auditorium at the Colonial; the seating has been overhauled, but a full interior restoration is still in the planning stages.

My parents moved my brother and me to Phoenixville, Pa., in 1963. We left the comfort of our extended family in Philadelphia and settled into the relative isolation of a brand-new subdivision 40 miles away.

Perched on the banks of the Schuylkill River, the Phoenixville of my youth saw its fortunes ebb and surge, inextricably tied to the economy that fed Phoenix Steel; it was a blue-collar industrial town, its downtown offering few of the choices the new malls nearby could.

But my new hometown had something nobody else's did. In 1957, a small crew of filmmakers had made what would become an enduring science fiction classic: The Blob. Scouting nearby locations, director Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr. decided to shoot a crucial scene in Phoenixville.

You know the one: In the film, the title creature — a gooey alien that's emerged from a meteorite — grows to enormous proportions feasting on the bodies of unsuspecting Pennsylvanians. Looking for a quick snack, it finds the local theater filled with late-night moviegoers — watching a midnight double feature of monster movies, ironically enough. The panic that ensues is one of the film's iconic moments.

And the icon at the heart of it was the Colonial Theatre, which sat majestically in the center of the main business district of Phoenixville. Built in 1903 as an opera house, it was home to many traveling theatrical shows in the early years of the 20th century. It was grand and opulent, with 600 seats, an expansive stage, ornate plaster detailing, and a neon marquee announcing that it was "healthfully air conditioned."

By the time I was regularly going to movies, the Colonial Theatre was an anachronism. Multiplexes had begun their spread across the country, and the old movie houses had begun to disappear. But despite the broken seats, sticky floor and peeling paint, there was something memorable about seeing movies at the Colonial. I vividly remember seeing The Godfather there with my brother, in 1972. Although I was unable to articulate it then, this was a cinematic experience that was passing into oblivion.

When I left my hometown for college in the mid-1970s, it was with the intention of never returning. I received sporadic news of Phoenixville's decline from my parents; when the steel mill finally closed in the 1980s, many thought it would be the final blow to a small town that had barely weathered the economic recessions of the 1970s. Nearby malls, like the one in King of Prussia, had lured customers away from the locally owned shoe stores, restaurants and five-and-dimes. Phoenixville's only department store, W.T. Grant, closed in 1976.

As Phoenixville's fortunes sank, the Colonial Theatre became even more valued as an institution vital to the city's survival. While many of the old-style theaters were "twinned," or repurposed as drug stores, attempts to alter the Colonial were never realized. Finally, in the 1990s, a nonprofit corporation purchased the theater, and has since been working to restore it to its original grandeur.

In the past decade, Phoenixville has experienced a remarkable transformation. Spurred by nearby corporate development, its downtown now boasts new bistros, antique stores and upscale housing.

And every year, in early July, people from around the country come to BlobFest, a weekend celebration of the film that gave my Pennsylvania hometown its claim to fame. Among the rituals: a short-film competition, a scream contest, a fire extinguisher parade — and an annual re-creation of that fleeing-the-theater scene.

Keith Brand co-hosts the weekend morning show Sleepy Hollow on member station WXPN in Philadelphia.

Web Resources

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.