By Elaine Kish
Monday, November 22, 1926 was a historic date for Canton, Ohio, as it marked opening day for The Canton Palace Theatre. The theatre was a gift to the community from Harry Harper Ink, a Canton businessman. Ink was the inventor of Tonsiline, a patent medicine for the specific relief of sore throats whose trademark was a long-necked giraffe.
The architecture of the theatre is that of a Spanish courtyard on a midsummer night, complete with a ceiling of stars and clouds. The original cloud machine was retrofitted and clouds now continue to move across the sky. The ornate proscenium arch over the stage contains two giraffe plaques reminiscent of the giraffe-shaped bottles used to package Tonsiline. Originally described as a million dollar vaudeville and movie house, the theatre has numerous stage curtains and theatrical backdrops, dressing rooms, a chorus room, a musician’s lounge, a music room, one shower room, and an orchestra pit with seating for 18 musicians. Over the years many groups have used the Palace for various types of shows as it is the perfect facility for all forms of entertainment. The 21’ x 46’ silver screen is still the largest in the City of Canton.
By far the most famous attraction at the Palace Theatre is the Kilgen pipe organ. One of only a few left in the country and the only one left that remains in its original home, it was originally used to provide accompaniment for the silent movies shown on the screen. On opening night in 1926, the original organist, Banks Kennedy, signed the wall of the left pipe chamber and added that “Valencia” was the first music heard by the audience. That piece of history remains preserved to this day. The Kilgen Company was primarily a church and concert organ builder, with their most famous instrument housed in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. However, during the 1920’s, Kilgen joined other companies in constructing instruments designed to play music to accompany silent movies and entertain theatre audiences.
The Kilgen organ was popular with audiences and the Ink family liked to have it played. It was used regularly into the 1950’s. In the early 60’s the organ began to develop problems which eventually made it unplayable. Some limited repairs were completed in 1967 by Stephen Brown of Orrville, Ohio, and he played the organ regularly until the theatre closed in 1976. Originally, the Kilgen organ was stationed permanently on the right side of the stage. In the early 1990’s a moveable orchestra pit was installed and to this day, the Kilgen organ rises up, comes alive with music, and when finished, floats back down to its home space.
With the migration of businesses and stores to the suburbs and the growing popularity of television, patronage at the Palace diminished during the 1960’s and 70’s. At the same time, downtown Canton endured a period of neglect. The Palace Theatre closed its doors on its 50th Anniversary in 1976. Remaining dark and neglected, the building was ultimately scheduled for demolition when the Canton Jaycees agreed to act as a holding organization until a group of citizens could be assembled to restore it to a viable business. The Canton Palace Theatre Association was formed and the building reopened in 1980. Restoration of the theatre has been ongoing since that time.
During its closure, the roof developed several leaks which caused extensive damage to the organ. A group of gentlemen patched and repaired it enough that it could be played for the reopening in 1980. The organ was played in that condition until 1992 when the Kegg Organ Company removed the entire organ from the building for a period of eight months for restoration. Perishable materials were replaced; damaged parts were repaired or replaced; the console was stripped, redecorated, repainted and refitted with new controls; and additional pipes were added, for a total of 767 pipes.
Over the years, wear and tear has taken its toll on this magnificent building. In 2012 an extensive restoration and renovation program was started. The building was closed for approximately two months from December, 2012 to February, 2013 to install a new roof and a new plumbing system to replace the original cast iron piping. That same year a digital cinema projection system was installed. This enabled the Palace to show movies produced in the new high-definition digital format rather than film. Restroom upgrades, ceiling repair and painting, service door replacement, box office and concession stand improvements, new tech booth and new sound system with LED lighting followed.
The final phase of restoration occurred during another shutdown in 2015 for construction. This process consisted of replacement of the current carpet with a replica of the original carpet pattern, installation of an ADA-compliant hearing impaired loop system, rerouting of all stage cables and the construction of a permanent tech booth area.
To date, over six million dollars has been spent to bring the Canton Palace Theatre back to its original splendor and update it for the future. The brightly-lit marquee stands 60 feet above the street and beckons patrons to enter its grand foyer into a part of Canton’s nostalgic past. The theatre currently hosts over 300 events a year with an attendance of more than 100,000 guests. With seating for 1,489 people, the theatre is available for live events, personal life events, private screenings and corporate events. The Canton Palace Theatre Association welcomes anyone to join in helping to preserve and maintain this unique historic building by way of Student, Individual and Corporate Memberships.
The Kilgen organ continues to play before all movie showings at the Palace at the hands of Jay Spencer, resident organist. Private organ concerts can be scheduled based on availability. Each year two silent films with organ accompaniment are scheduled in May and October.
Personally, having grown up in Canton, I will never forget the many times through the years meeting with friends to enjoy a movie at the Palace Theatre. Another favorite memory will be taking my granddaughters to a “First Friday” movie where they were able to watch the famed Kilgen organ appear, hear it played by Bob Beck, former resident organist, and then watch the organ disappear back into the orchestra pit just as I had done so many times in the past. For additional information regarding the Canton Palace Theatre, its history, renovation and current schedule of events, visit their website at www.cantonpalacetheatre.org.
The Canton Palace Theatre