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Garman Theatre has Storied Past

September 11, 2012

Fire ushered in the historic Garman Opera House Movie Theatre and Hotel Do De buildings, and it may take them out.


An early-morning blaze Sunday ravaged the hotel on East High Street in Bellefonte and heavily damaged the neighboring theater, leaving their futures in doubt.


Both buildings date back to 1887 after a block-long inferno burned the original versions.


In 1861, two years after he came to Bellefonte, Daniel Garman expanded the old Franklin House into a hotel and dubbed his establishment the Garman House, according to John Blair Linn’s history of Centre and Clinton counties.


His hotel, remodeled in 1888 after the fire, turned into a popular gathering place for local luminaries.


Next door the Garman Opera House opened in 1890.


Bellefonte’s main stage played host to vaudeville acts, Wild West shows and later such stars as Harry Houdini and the duo of George Burns and Gracie Allen, according to the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association.


Silent films first flickered at the Garman in the early 1900s. In 1931, with talkies in full swing, it was renamed the State Theater.


Until 1961, the State vied for audiences with its nearby rival, The Plaza. That year, the State’s projectors ran their last reels, and the Plaza was left to soldier on to its demise in the early 1970s.


Meanwhile, the shuttered State was relegated to being a warehouse.


Its revival came in the mid-1990s, when Barbara and David Harry renovated its interior for plays. A few years later, Bellefonte resident Kathryn Iadarola, who grew up seeing films at the State for a quarter, bought the theater at a sheriff’s sale.


She installed a 27-foot wide screen, a state-of-the-art projector, a digital sound system, bringing back movies to Bellefonte with a 400-seat cinema in 2000.


The reborn Garman Opera House Movie Theatre showed a mix of first-run and classic films, including special showings of chestnuts such as “The Wizard of Oz.”


The Iadarola family also opened an Italian restaurant, La Bella Trattoria, in the building, adding a 10- room inn in 2006.


But four years ago, the family put the theater, restaurant and inn up for sale. They’re now in the limbo of foreclosure proceedings.


Sue Hannegan, a Centre County planner, used to work for the borough. She said the buildings’ roofs appear to have “suffered significant damage.”


But, she said, the facades are “in remarkable condition given the severity of the damage above.” Drawing on the example of Savannah, Ga., where historic facades front modern buildings, she hopes in the worst case the borough avoids the “missing tooth syndrome” of vacant lots.


“If we have to lose the buildings, can we save the facades?” she said. “That would be an interesting question to pursue.”


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