With popcorn in hand and a cold soda to wash it down, it’s time to roll the film on a unique small-town movie complex. Consisting of not one but two historic theater venues in downtown York, once, it could all have become a parking lot. But fate and family intervened. Shuttered in the 1970s along with many single-screen movie houses in the United States, this dynamic duo was saved by the efforts of a philanthropist connected to their inception.
Nathan Appell was once one of the biggest names in theatre in Pennsylvania. An organizer of playhouses and touring theatre troupes as well, it was Appell who decided to invest in building a movie theater in York, Pennsylvania. Built in 1925 for over $1 million, the sumptuous Strand Theatre was designed as a single-screen house able to provide native Yorkers with up-and-coming silent films surrounded by 1,800 pounds of gold leaf interior decor and Italian Renaissance-style murals. It was not long before Appell and his son Louis purchased an old dance hall and opera house next door in 1926, converting the building into a second movie screen named The Capitol Theatre. Thus began decades of a unique privilege for patrons of the arts in York—if one wasn’t interested in the film being shown on one screen, another choice for the evening was just a lobby away.
Over the years the two sibling theaters passed through a few companies before both eventually closed in the late 1970s, losing out to the modern multiplexes giving locals even more cinematic choices. With the proposal presented to the town council advocating to tear the two theaters down, it would be another Appell who saved the cultural centers from becoming pavement. Louis Appell, Jr., grandson of Nathan, led a coalition to purchase and restore the two theatrical spaces to their former glory. Under his leadership, the Strand reopened with a performance by Ella Fitzgerald and her orchestra in 1980, and the Capitol opened its doors once again the following year with a fully restored Wurlitzer organ.
Further cementing both venues as York’s cultural community center, vast renovations were undergone in 2017. DLR Group was brought in to restore both spaces while upgrading them to the needs of 21st-century York. The complete interior of the Strand was reborn with an addition of a 250-seat mezzanine level, and two historic buildings next door were converted into a grand lobby space for the community. The Capitol saw its stage expanded under this project as well, along with a full renovation of its historic proscenium.
Now named the Appell Center for the Performing Arts, it is only fitting the venues are christened after the family that began their stories and orchestrated their rebirth. With The Strand and Capitol returned to their former glory (and more), we patrons can now sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.