A New Theatre is Built

The Historic Mishler Theatre, located at 1208 Twelfth Avenue, Altoona, PA, opened its doors on February 15, 1906. Even then it carried the highest distinction by being the first structure of its kind in America to be completely devoted to theatrical pursuits, as in the early 1900’s theatres occupied the second floor of commercial buildings.

Albert Westover, a prominent theatre architect of the time, designed the grand house for Isaac Charles (Doc) Mishler, and his original plans remain on file, along with other theatre archived documents and memorabilia.

Isaac Mishler

Isaac Mishler was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on September 30, 1862, moving to Altoona to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad just months before his 19th birthday. After several years with the P.R.R., he opened a cigar store on 11th Avenue.  The store soon became a gathering place for men interested in baseball and other amusements, and Mr. Mishler became a promoter for professional baseball, for a number of years placing teams with the Pennsylvania State League.

His theatrical career began in 1893 when he took over the Eleventh Avenue Opera House, located on the corner of 11th Avenue & 11th Street. At first he was in partnership with Charles Myers, but in 1896 he assumed full ownership and managed the Opera House until 1907, when it was destroyed by fire.

During this same period of time he was also managing the State Street Theatre in Trenton New Jersey, and the Cambria Theatre in Johnstown. Isaac Mishler used his own money to build the Mishler Theatre, and, except for the three months it took to rebuild after its own disasterous fire, the beautiful new playhouse flourished until the 1920’s.

Architecture and Design

The Playhouse

Constructed of red brick in Flemish bond with Indiana Limestone trim, the Mishler is a French classic building with 8 doors (at its origin there were 12) lining the front.  Above the exterior entrance are four representations of the Muses, separated by Ionic columns and mounted on a stone balustrade.

Four circular windows are above these, with carved stone garlands flanked by two limestone figures of Melpomene and her sister Terpsichore, the Muse of Tragedy and the Muse of Dance and Song, respectively.  A large cornice with pairs of gigantic brackets and closely spaced modillions were surrounded by a balustrade, on top of which the name of the theatre appeared.

Interior Design

On the interior, details were in the Baroque style. The lobby had marble columns, with mosaic decorative and intricate scroll work on the walls. The seats were green leather. Red carpet and silk plush draperies with gold fringe graced the interior.  The local paper described two other features as follows:

The drop curtain is in admirable harmony with the decorative design of The Reception of Marie Antoinette at Trianon. The most conspicuous feature of the decoration is an allegorical painting in the upper proscenium arch, painted from living figures representing the spirits of music, comedy and tragedy.

Seating and Capacity

The Mishler had a seating capacity of 1,900, a 42 feet deep and 84 feet wide stage equipped with 2900 electrical lamps, and 12 dressing rooms with hot and cold running water below the stage. Additionally, there were 4 dressing rooms located above the stage.

Opening Night

February 15, 1906

In the inaugural program for February 15, 1906, Mr. Mishler gave the theatre-going public the following assurances: The Policy of the new Mishler is to present high class standard productions in perfect manner to audiences safely housed in comfort and pleasing surroundings, to offer engagements worthy of the patronage of families, the most fastidious need have no fear at any time to enjoy its offerings.

The Show

Merely Mary Ann, with Eleanor Robson in the starring role, was the opening night’s presentation. A local paper reported the following: Beautiful women in costly habits and handsome men in conventional black formed a pleasing setting for the new theatre.  A concert preceded the performance, and, at 8:00, Mayor Simon H. Walker dedicated the theatre and paid great tribute to Isaac C. Mishler as he stated:

Mr. Mishler, in planning and creating such a splendid shelter for the public in its recreations and first class amusements, should be looked upon as a public benefactor who deserves and will receive the warm thanks of the people…It is impossible, even for those who are not theatergoers, to be insensible to the beauty of the edifice or the importance of it as an ornament to the city.

Continued Success

In the months that followed its opening, many popular plays of that time came to the Mishler. Two fortunate circumstances enabled Mr. Mishler to fulfill the promise made to the opening night audience: his booking experience as manager of the Eleventh Avenue Opera House, and Altoona’s situation on the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad when there were more than 40 passenger trains each day.

Mishler Fire

October 1906

October 1906 was destined to be a black month in Altoona. A ravaging fire destroyed the new five-story Rothert building, leaped to the Elks Home across the alley and, with a shift in the wind, swung across to the Mishler.

It is said that the flames flashed through the stage first. Here was gathered, according to Mr. Mishler’s statement, the finest collection of scenery of any theatre in the country.  The Mishler had cost between $115,000 and $118,000 to construct. It had been pronounced by the building inspectors to be one of the safest and strongest public buildings they had ever examined and, consequently, was insured for only $50,000.

When learning of the fire, Doc Mishler’s philosophic view of the situation was:

Well, I can stand the loss of the theatre better than the loss of a leg. I cannot say yet what I will do. All the money I had in the world I put into that house. I do not regard it as a personal loss…It’s a city loss. If I have sufficient money, I will rebuild it at once…I have been a little embarrassed in a financial way owing to the building of the theatre, and for that reason I am not in a position to say whether I can rebuild it myself or not.

From the Ashes

Mr. Mishler had seen his costly and beautiful theatre ruined by fire less than nine months after its opening, yet his confidence in the patronage of Altoona’s citizens and his belief in greater Altoona’s possibilities caused him to say: I will rebuild.  And rebuild he did!   Working in twelve hour shifts, the builders completed the Mishler in three months, and the generosity and support of the people of Altoona did not diminish in the many years to come.


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