Binghamton's First Movie Theaters and the Man Who Created Them
With its highly ornate façade and lavish interior, the press account was no exaggeration. Lempert was one of the preeminent movie theater designers of the day and is responsible for over twenty such structures in upstate New York and Pennsylvania.
Over 4,500 people attended the opening. A long line of patrons extended down Chenango Street, and ultimately hundreds had to be turned away. The movie feature was a silent film, “The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come,” staring Mary Pickford’s brother Jack. Additional entertainment included five vaudeville acts, a Pathe news review and orchestra concert – all for a matinee price of 18 cents.
But the main attraction was the Strand itself. As reported the following day, “the beauties of the theater overshadowed the excellence of the entertainment program.”
In 1903, Ned Kornblite moved to Binghamton from Philadelphia and established the Horseshoe Café at 51 Chenango Street. Five years later, intrigued with the concept of moving pictures, he installed a nickelodeon and magic lantern in the building. He called his new enterprise the Nickel Theater. Soon Kornblite was projecting “The Great Train Robbery” and other silent movies for his customers, and “The Star,” as it was now called, became the first moving picture theater in town.
The business thrived and after a few years Kornblite had a new building constructed on the site. Designed by architect Sanford O. Lacey, the new Star Theater opened October 20, 1913 and was reported to “compare favorably with the best picture amusement houses in the United States.”
A few years later Kornblite built the Strand. Located just a few doors down from the Star, the Strand stood right next to the Stone Opera House, the premier entertainment center for live theater and vaudeville. By then several vaudeville theaters in town were showing movies, but the Star and Strand were the first Binghamton theaters designed specifically for that purpose.
The movie theater boom continued for many years. Kornblite’s granddaughter Sally Callahan, now living in California, comments that her grandfather experienced “a remarkable climb to success.” “He came from nothing and ended up owning a chain of theaters throughout New York State,” she said. Finally, in 1935 Kornblite sold the Star and Strand to the Comerford Theater chain.
During the 1950’s, television redefined family entertainment and a decade later, smaller movie theaters cropped up in suburban shopping centers to accommodate a new, more mobile generation of movie goers. Large mid-city movie houses were in trouble and it would only get worse. Urban Renewal was lurking in the shadows and few were safe from its ravages.
On January 18, 1966, the man who brought movies to Binghamton died. By then the Star had gone dark – demolished in the name of Urban Renewal. The Strand, which under Kornblite’s ownership held to its stated policy of showing only “high-class photoplays,” was now reduced to showing “B” movies and eventually x-rated films.
In 1972 the Strand gained national attention after law officers raided the establishment during a premier showing of “Deep Throat.” A few years later the theater closed.
Since that time several plans have surfaced for reviving the Strand, including a modern movie complex, an evangelical church, an office complex and a supper club. None of the plans came about, and although the front portion of the building served as a restaurant for several years, the theater has remained sealed off and vacant for over three decades.
Today the Strand is dark, cold and empty. Theater seats on the ground level have been removed. A narrow passageway winds through a sea of plastic buckets and metal drums – presumably containing used cooking oil and other waste accumulated from years of restaurant activity.
Iron skeletal remains of once-lavish box seats line the theater walls, and high overhead a decorative domed ceiling remains somewhat intact.
Barricades over a door to the alley have been pried open. Beer cans, bottles and spray-painted graffiti give evidence of night visitors and urban explorers. Everything is covered with a gray mixture of dust, plaster, pigeon parts and other biological residue.
Last July the Strand made front page news. Under the title “Theater Restoration – Stranded no more,” the former executive director of a local nonprofit arts group, the Art Mission and Theatre, announced plans to restore and move into the building. The announcement appears to have been premature. Anna Kovach, current executive director of the organization now says, “we are reassessing what we want to do, whether we want to move or stay where we are.”
Recently a sign appeared on the front of the Strand announcing an “absolute real estate auction” to be held November 23. The notice states that the building will be sold to the highest bidder, “regardless of price.”
Originally billed as the last word in movie theater design, today the Strand is the last vestige of Binghamton’s original moving picture theaters. For 90 years it has stood testament to the vision of its founder. Hopefully on November 23 a new owner will come forward, with a new vision for this important piece of Binghamton history.