By TOM LAVIS
In this age of megaplex theater chains, many of the neighborhood venues have been replaced by expansive facilities featuring 20 or more screens showing the latest blockbusters.
But through all the changes from drive-in theaters to multiplex movie houses, County Amusement Co. of Johnstown, a family-owned business, is celebrating its 60th anniversary of bringing Hollywood’s finest to the big screen.
Cinematically speaking, owner and general manager Ed Troll IV said the demand for smaller theaters has not waned.
Started as contractors
The Troll family originally was in the construction business under the name of Laub, Collins and Troll before forming a partnership to make movie magic.
The transformation reads like a movie script.
“In June of 1949, they actually built the Richland Drive-In as something to keep their employees busy between jobs,” Troll said.
The theater boasted spots for 850 cars, a playground for children to play prior to the movies and a screened patio for dancing.
The opening night movie starred Randolph Scott in “Trail Street” with “Lucky Lady” as the second show.
Lady Luck smiled on the company as it grew to become the key movie distributor in the region over the past six decades.
“My father called the Richland Drive-In the most beautiful outdoor theater in western Pennsylvania, and it had speaker posts that were individually lighted for safety,” Troll said.
“The family purchased the Westmont Drive-In in 1952 and opened our first season at the Silver Drive-In in 1962.”
From there, County Amusement went on to operate the Embassy Theater and Acts I & II in downtown Johnstown and the Duke and Duchess at the former Richland Mall and later the Richland Mall Cinemas, Johns-town’s only multiscreen theater at the time.
“When we closed one theater, we always had another one opening,” Troll said.
Many of those business associates and partners and longtime employees will be honored Thursday at an invitation-only anniversary dinner at the Mirage Banquet Facility in Richland Township.
“I’ve had plaques made to present to folks who have been with us for 10 to 32 years,” he said. “Many of these people worked with my father and grandfather as they grew their business.”
The Westmont Drive-In was raised in the early 1960s to make way for the Westwood Plaza. The land was not sold, but leased.
“A little-known developer at the time by the name of Frank Pasquerilla from Ferndale was awarded the general contract,” Troll said.
“There was more money made by leasing the property for 30 years than the company could have ever made by just selling the land.”
Troll remarked he was born and raised in the theater.
“While my mother, Sally, was pregnant with me in 1950, she worked the concession stand at the Richland Drive-In,” Troll said. “So I always say the movie business is in my blood.”
As a college student at Catholic University in Washington D.C., where he earned a degree in electrical engineering, Troll spent summer vacations working in the business.
“The Silver Drive-In paid for my college education,” he said. “That was the era of beach, biker and horror movies.”
The first theaters Troll got to design were the Duke and Duchess, which opened in November 1974.
“My father once told me his only regret is that he didn’t have the opportunity to design a theater from scratch,” he said.
Troll’s father and grandfather operated the Richland Drive-In from 1949 to the 1970s on land that later became Richland Mall and Richland Town Centre.
Troll has been in the midst of the stupendous growth of the movie industry.
When Troll opened the Duke and Duchess, he was fortunate to have a film titled “Jaws” make its debut.
“That was the first-ever summer blockbuster and it changed the industry,” he said.
“My theater was sold out for a month and lines stretched through the mall, blocking the entrance to storefronts.”
Another monumental movie burst onto the scene in May 1977 when Luke Skywalker left his home planet, teamed up with other rebels, and saved Princess Leia from the evil clutches of Darth Vader in the release of “Star Wars.”
“It was during the ’77 Flood and we ran it for six months,” Troll said.
“Ironically, even recessions don’t hurt us because movies are a form of escapism.”
Don’t let Troll’s trademark pony tail, casual dress and laid-back demeanor fool you.
He is a savvy businessman who has had to make crucial decisions to keep the family business afloat.
Several national theater chains have attempted to open multiplex theaters in the region, threatening the survival of the family business.
In December 1988, Manos Theater of Greensburg announced plans to create a $2.5 million, 10-screen theater. The move could have crippled County Amusement.
The Manos plans stalled over a lease agreement with Glosser Bros. for property at University Park Shopping Center.
As the third-generation Troll to be involved in the business, he went on the offensive.
In the fall 1989, Richland Mall Cinemas Inc. was formed and another family was added that has roots dating back to the Nickelodeon days. Louis P. Silverman, currently of State College, came on board as a partner.
Instrumental in designing Richland Mall Cinemas, which once housed a supermarket, Troll has worked tirelessly to keep his theaters on the cutting edge.
“We gutted the old Shop ’n’ Save and I had to design a floor plan around vertical beams that supported the roof,” he said.
“We couldn’t remove the supports so I had to design our rooms around them.”
In his current building at Richland Town Centre, Troll insisted on having stadium seating, a better sound system and installed a rearview projection system in the lobby.
Troll has been in the business long enough to realize there always will be challenges and lean times.
“In all my years at the theaters, the most uncertain time for me was from 1990 to 1997,” he said.
There was talk of a 15-screen multiplex theater being built at The Galleria, which replaced Richland Mall as the Johnstown region’s main shopping center.
“The marketplace is only big enough for one multiplex theater,” Troll said.
“These chains have deep pockets and posed a threat.”
As the ultimate survivor, Troll gambled and built his latest theater in the shadow of his former movie house.
“I was the last man standing,” he quipped.
Richland Mall Cinemas was demolished once the move to its new home was complete.
“You don’t have to be an industry expert or a financial wizard to know that our region cannot support two multiplex theaters,” Troll said.
The family aspect of the business continues as Troll’s daughter-in-law, Donna, has been given the responsibility of much of the day-to-day operation.
“I had opportunities to go into accounting or international business, but being part of a family operation has many benefits,” she said.
“The business has weathered many challenges and we continue to give the public top-notch entertainment.”
By TOM LAVIS
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