"Just once in a while let us exalt the importance of ideas and information." - Edward Murrow
Altoona's original business district was once a lively hub of activity. Beyond standing as a center of shopping, commerce and industry, Eleventh and Twelfth Avenues flourished as focal points of art and culture. No less than ten movie playhouses once lined the streets. Galleries, music shops and photography studios have emerged and disappeared. Decades later, the traces of these artisans and entrepreneurs remain proud symbols of a city that has managed to hold onto some of its past artistic vitality.
Non-profit organizations such as the Altoona Community Theatre (ACT) are deeply rooted in downtown culture. With its earliest origins stemming to the 1920s, the acting ensemble formally established itself in 1948. Sharing a presence downtown, while completely worthwhile, is not without its challenges. Steven Helsel, the operations manager at ACT says, "It is a gradual process that is occurring and hopefully everyone continues to help the downtown grow even more."
In the end, ACT strives to create quality entertainment with "local people performing for local people," Helsel says. Citizens of all ages become engaged with their productions as well as the rich historical character of the Mishler Theatre. Nurturing those connections is a compellingly worthwhile endeavor.
The alliance formed between ACT and the Blair County Arts Foundation (BCAF) saved one of Altoona's most enduring icons in the 1960s. As massive downtown demolitions under the disguise of "urban renewal" forever altered the city landscape, the historic Mishler Theatre too faced seemingly imminent destruction. However, thanks to a far-reaching grassroots effort, the leadership of ACT and BCAF preserved the theatre for posterity.
Fifty years later, that noble effort continues. "The Mishler Theatre has become the cultural center of the city," says Kate Shaffer, the executive director of BCAF. Her organization shares neighborly bonds with fellow artistic institutions downtown. In her view, art—like the downtown itself—is central to the city's identity. "People need art in their lives. It entertains them. It inspires them. It is important," she says. As Penn State Altoona, hotels and restaurants become increasingly involved on the scene, traits of the community's once-vibrant downtown re-emerge. "All of this is changing the face of downtown Altoona," Shaffer says.
Barbara Hollander, the site director at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art (SAMA), wholeheartedly agrees. "Through thick and thin…we were downtown when there was nothing. We stayed here because we believed in it." Located in the historic Brett Building across from the post office, the flavor of SAMA's setting is distinctly classical—as is The Columns located next door. "Downtown has a personality that lends itself to the arts," Hollander says.
Meanwhile, the Allegheny Ballet Company has taken residence in the upstairs of the former Winter's Music Store on Twelfth Avenue. In addition, the Altoona Symphony Orchestra, established in 1928, continues to introduce locals to the enduring power and relevancy of music. Potential is everywhere and what the community needs most is the vision to recognize that potential.
Across town, local artist Michael Allison is currently revitalizing the rooms and halls of Baker Mansion. "Every important bit of revitalization previous to the last five years has been inspired by arts organizations," he says. Allison believes that individuals with a desire to see cultural attractions return downtown have been the catalyst for this noble movement.
Many downtown revitalization efforts have gained only modest success over the last fifty years. Long term restorations have the potential to build upon those previous efforts undertaken by individuals and non-profits. "When you are involved with a restoration, you have a major commitment," Allison says. "By necessity, you need to stand by that commitment."