Film History in New Castle, Pennsylvania


Scott Lawton was born in the city of New Castle, Pennsylvania, a traditional manufacturing and commercial center an hour's drive north of Pittsburgh. For many people, the city was known as the home of "Shenango China", a ceramic factory which supplied the dinnerware for the White House for decades. Nowadays it is a pleasant former "rustbelt" town in the midst of picturesque farmland, much of which is settled and cultivated in traditional ways by a large Amish community.

In terms of film history, New Castle nearly enjoyed a much different destiny, for the Warner Brothers motion picture empire actually had its start here. At the turn of the century, Harry, Sam, Abe and Jack Warner, sons of a Yiddish-speaking cobbler who had immigrated from via Hamburg, Germany from Krasnashiltz, Poland, were soap salesmen in nearby Youngstown, Ohio. On visits to Pittsburgh, they discovered the newly-invented nickelodeon. Recognizing the future of this new technology, they formed the Duquesne Amusement Supply Company in 1904, selling the family's delivery horse to raise funds for a used Edison Kinetoscope projector. The brothers began by showing the Kinetoscope "on tour" in Western Pennsylvania, then opened the 99-seat "Cascade Theater" in May 1905 in a three story brick Italianate building in downtown New Castle, reportedly using seats from a local funeral home. The Warner brothers (pictured here at the entrance) operated the theater until 1911, finally selling it for a tidy $40,000. A year later, Sam Warner opened a film production office in Los Angeles. "Warner Brothers" was founded in Hollywood... and the film production industry had left New Castle for good.

The other period pictures on this page portray New Castle as it prospered in steel and tin production in the following years. In 1925, a magnificent theater was built - at that time the largest stage facility between New York and Chicago. The neo-classic Scottish Rite Cathedral (pictured here) seats 2,834 and regularly hosts performances by the Pittsburgh Symphony.

As an elementary school student Lawton took part in performances with the "Holiday Players", an active community theater group which sometimes played at the Cathedral. His first stage roles (albeit very modest!) were in the musicals "Gypsy" and "Scrooge", taken from Dickens' "A Christmas Carol". (The founder of the company, David Matthews, moved on to the Erie Playhouse, where he has led one of the nation's finest community theaters for the past 20 years.)