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Prior to building his new industrial town and steel factory in what was to become Vandergrift Pennsylvania, George G. McMurtry owned and operated a major mill in Apollo, Pennsylvania.  Mounting labor issues compounded by a need to expand his manufacturing facilities created a strong desire for him to move forward with the development of a new industrial town and steel mill only one mile down the Kiskiminetas River from his Apollo Plant.  A trip to the Chicago Exposition of 1893  provided the impetus for George McMurtry to seek out the professional skills of the renowned landscape architect firm of Frederick Law Olmstead, planner of the layout for the Exposition, to design and build his new company town so that it would be “better than the best.” The Exposition also led him to the decision to hire the well-known inventor, George Westinghouse who masterminded the electrical infrastructure for the Chicago Exposition. McMurtry asked his acquaintance and famed riverboat captain, Jacob Jay Vandergrift, to manage the building of his new town.  The intent was to provide a place where his employees could own their own homes and develop pride and allegiance to the wonderful place that was being created for them where they could live, work and play with a greater quality of life.  It is ironic to note that Captain Vandergrift never lived in nor visited his namesake. Part of that pride was to come from intentionally incorporating unparalleled cultural and recreational opportunities into the town’s fabric.  Besides a beautiful system of parks, donated land for churches and a company baseball team, the plan included the development of a cultural center for the musical and performing arts to be known as the Casino Theatre.  Hiring, then famed, building architect, John Allison, to design it and the Rudy Brothers to do the theatre’s ornate stained glass windows, McMurtry created a columned Greek revival gem where nearly 700 town’s people could gather to rise to a heightened level of entertainment and culture.  Opened in June of 1900, George McMurtry invited many of his industrialist friends from his headquarters in New York City to the premiere of a play that was then on the road prior to a successful opening on Broadway.  Among those who traveled to the opening was famed jeweler and stained glass innovator, Lewis Comfort Tiffany.  The Casino, (a word meaning large room where people could gather), in its early years was primarily used for popular lectures, plays and traveling Vaudeville shows. Auditoriums of this size were too large for projecting the primitive silent films developed at first for nickelodeons.  Keep in mind that all of this was happening prior to advanced communications like television and radio.  The stage provided one of few ways to experience, firsthand, what was going on in the world, regarding entertainment as well as listening to renowned speakers.  As time and technology advanced into the teens and twenties the theater was also used to show, the then fashionable silent movies.  An orchestra including a permanent large Geneva Organ accompanied the features to provide added excitement and meaning.  Among some of its well known visitors, the Casino Theatre hosted President William H. Taft, World Boxing champion, Bob Fitzsimons, composer Hoagy Carmichael, the Lone Ranger, cowboys Tex Ritter and Roy Rogers (and his horse Trigger, too), the Three Stooges, Mickey Rooney and many more.  Reportedly in the late teens and early twenties, a young boy from Indiana, Pa. visiting his aunt in Vandergrift over the summers was allowed to help the projectionist show some of the early films…..  his name was James Stewart, who went on to his own movie fame. In addition to many technological upgrades over the years to keep competitive with the newly developing television venue, in the 1950’s the theater was converted to be able to show wide screen (cinemascope) films, the first being “The Robe.”   The theater continued to enjoy popularity for many additional decades until it could no longer compete with the multi-screen cinemas being developed all around the Alle-Kiski Region.  Despite all of the innovations, the multiplex cinemas finally replaced it and in 1981 the Casino Theatre closed its doors and remained silent for nearly 13 years.  When threatened with re-purposing and/or demolition, a group of dedicated volunteers led by Eugene Iagnemma, a local High School English teacher, began the campaign in 1992 to renovate and save this historic structure.  Reopening its doors in 1995, the Casino Theatre Restoration and Management (CTRM), a non-profit organization has been able to restore the theater to its original grandeur and successfully manage it over the recent decades.  Today the Casino Theatre still commands a strategic place in the hearts and minds of the people of the Alle-Kiski Region and hopes to continue providing culture and entertainment as its founders intended for years to come!
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