Historical Markers
Charles Mishler Historical Marker
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Charles Mishler

Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies


Marker Location:
1208 Twelfth Ave. at Mishler Theater, Altoona

Dedication Date:
May 4, 2003

Behind the Marker

Eleventh Ave Opera House Program cover
Flyer for Johnstown's Eleventh Ave Opera House, I. C. Mishler Lessee and Manager,...
When comedy legend George Burns subtitled one of his various volumes of memoirs They Still Love Me in Altoona, his tongue was only partially planted in his cheek. As a comedian, he certainly loved the sound of "Altoona," and the way it rolled off his lips, but the truth is audiences did love him in Altoona, just as they loved markerW.C. Fields, Houdini, George Jessell, Al Jolson, Ed Wynn, Sarah Bernhardt, George M. Cohan, Lillian Russell, Jascha Heifitz, Isadora Duncan, Maude Adams, markerEthel Barrymore, John Philip Sousa, heavyweight boxers Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey, and the other headliners who passed through. Thanks to the fortuitous convergence of a remarkable railroad system and the civic-minded foresight of showman Isaac Mishler, they all went out of their way to play Altoona. Altoona may not have been New York, but Mishler established a venue here that could hold its head with any cousin from the flashier environs of Broadway.

Born in Lancaster in 1862, Isaac Charles Mishler was the son of a carriage builder-turned-businessman whose family, Swiss-German in origin, arrived in Pennsylvania more than a century before. Had young Isaac accomplished nothing else in what grew into a relatively long life, this alone would have warranted a footnote in the annals of commerce: As a teenager, Mishler became the first employee of the first Woolworth's when Frank Woolworth, who wasn't all that much older, hired him to work in his first 5-and-10-cent store, in downtown Lancaster. In time, that store grew into the nationwide chain that made Woolworth a retailing legend. Mishler didn't stay long, though, for he heard the whistle of opportunity blowing from the west - in Altoona.

Opera House Block
The Mishler Theatre has been the site of entertainment for generations of Blair...
Just east of the Allegheny Mountains, Altoona was a young and bustling city when Mishler arrived in 1881. Just west of town the recently unveiled engineering marvel of Horseshoe Curve completed the Pennsylvania Railroad's main line between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Altoona's location between the much larger cities made it an instant hub, a boomtown built on trains and train traffic. By the turn of the century, more than forty passenger trains markerstopped in Altoona daily. Passengers waiting on connections needed food, beds, and something to pass the time between trains.

Mishler quickly found work in one of the railroad's markerrepair shops, but within a few years, exchanged grease for smoke, opening a downtown cigar store. The shop did well. With his profits Mishler, barely into his twenties, took the first swing at the entertainment business; he invested in local baseball.

Mishler's stake in both semi-professional and minor league teams taught him two important lessons. First, popular entertainment was profitable. Second, it helped foster the kind of civic spirit that united communities. In 1893, he became a partner in Altoona's Eleventh Avenue Opera House, and a year later took over two theaters in nearby Johnstown. With three theaters under his control, he found it easier to lure better acts to both towns.

Photo of Historic Mishler Theater after the fire.
Mishler Theatre after the fire, Altoona, PA, November, 1906.
Within a decade, his domain had spread to include theaters in Allentown, Trenton, and Paterson. By creating a thriving, if small, vaudeville circuit, Mishler had become one of Altoona's most successful businessmen, and by all accounts as well-liked as he was well-respected.

In 1905, Mishler put together plans for a state-of-the-art theater on Twelfth Avenue, around the corner from his opera house, to present what he called "high-class standard productions in perfect manner to audiences safely housed in comfort and pleasing surroundings." And, indeed, when the Mishler Theatre opened on Feb. 15, 1906, it was a Beaux Arts masterpiece - costing nearly $120,000 that Mishler personally financed - which soon lured not just the day's top vaudeville performers, but the kinds of tonier music and theatrical productions that rarely traveled to smaller cities.

Who wouldn't want to play this venue? Its external façade was made of red brick and Indiana limestone balustrade, twelve doors, and four circular windows flanked by statues of two Muses: Terpsichore and Melponome. The lavish interior, built of marble and ornamental plaster, boasted gilt ceilings and chandeliers, and a massive stage, eighty-four feet wide and forty-two feet deep. Seating 1,900 patrons on three levels, the Mishler also offered an early version of air conditioning to keep patrons cool in the summer, and modern safety features that included twenty exits, sprinklers, and a fire-proof curtain.

Despite these precautions, it burned down just nine months later, when high winds swept a fire from an adjacent building into the belly of the theater. Mishler was devastated - but resolved. "I do not regard it as a personal loss," he stoically told the Altoona Mirror on the morning of the fire. "It's a city loss… It was my pride that the old Mountain City had a theater of which it need not be ashamed." He vowed to rebuild, but he had underinsured the theater, and original construction costs tapped him out.

Head and shoulders photograph of Mishler wearing a vest, suit jacket, and a bow-tie.
Isaac Charles Mishler, circa 1906
Mishler rebuilt anyway, patching together his financing through insurance, the sale of his theater in Trenton, and loans guaranteed by friends. Fortunately, the exterior walls had held, and with tradesmen working around the clock, a new roof and an even more fireproof interior were quickly installed, and the theater, miraculously, reopened with much hoopla just three months after all seemed lost.

For the next two decades, Mishler booked his theater with top talent from vaudeville, the legitimate stage, opera, the concert hall, and the lecture circuit. He was also an early champion of the movies; shows as varied asmarkerLyman Howe's travelogues and D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation played the Mishler, and for Griffith's Way Down East, Mishler, always insisting on the best, brought in a twenty-piece orchestra. And, true to his civic-minded ideals, Mishler regularly opened his theater to local theatricals, charity fund-raisers, and political meetings, as well.

Mishler announced his plans to retire in 1923 - by then the theater was mostly running movies - and sold the theater in 1931. He remained active in theater well into his sixties, and for a while moved back to Lancaster to run the markerFulton Opera House. He died in 1944, and is buried, with both his first wife, Mollie, who died before him, and his second wife, Alice, in Altoona's Calvary Cemetery.

Mishler's legacy lives on in the theater that still carries his name. Through several incarnations - and one close call with the wrecking ball in the 1960s - it continues to thrive, under the auspices of the Blair Country Arts Federation and local cultural organizations. In 1973, the Mishler Theatre was entered onto the National Register of Historic Places.
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