On December 23, 1926, the Tivoli, opened its doors for the first time. Built at a cost of more than $350,000, the theater was, at the time, the second largest structure ever built in Frederick. Designed to comfortably seat 1,500 people, the Tivoli not only had a sixteen-foot movie screen, but it could also accommodate live performances with an orchestra pit, a large stage, 50 sets of pulleys for scenery, and a full complement of dressing rooms.
Unlike the area theaters of the day, which catered to lovers of low-budget films, the Tivoli maintained an atmosphere of refinement. Ushers wore uniforms with gold-buttoned jackets, and the managers dressed in tuxedos. Surrounded by crystal chandeliers, marble and silk wall coverings and leather seats, an opening-night sell-out crowd watched a selection of short features and silent films.
The Frederick Daily News published an editorial proclaiming that “Frederick may indeed feel proud of her handsome new theatre . . . The erection of such a beautiful amusement house is in itself a tribute to the community. It demonstrates in a most outstanding way the faith that a great theatrical organization has in the future of our city.”
In 1940, the Tivoli became the first building in Frederick to be air conditioned – all because of a horse race.
The building was designed with large built-in fans to circulate air, but sticky Frederick summers provided a challenge. Installing air conditioning in the Tivoli would have cost more than $100,000, and the owners simply couldn’t afford it.
Enter Challedon, a race horse raised in Walkersville, Maryland, just outside of Frederick. When Challedon traveled to race in the Santa Anita handicap, he was accompanied by his owner, W.L. Brann and Brann’s friend, Edward Thomas. Thomas was not only a race fan, he was also a patron of the Tivoli.
At a pre-race party, Warner Studio head Jack Warner was overheard saying he was going to bet $50,000 on the favorite. Thomas persuaded him to bet on Challedon instead. When Challedon won the race, Warner asked how he could return the favor. Thomas’s request – install air conditioning at the Weinberg. Warner made good on his offer, and for many years afterward, the Tivoli’s air conditioning probably attracted more people to the theater than the shows did.
The Tivoli’s original owners kept the theater through 1930’s, but eventually sold it to a subsidiary of the Warner Brothers Corporation. By the 1950’s, television was chipping away at movie theaters’ business. And new, suburban cinemas were attracting an increasing number of patrons.
The Tivoli gradually fell into a state of disrepair. Staff painted the marble walls black to reduce glare and thick padding was used to cover the carved wood wall coverings so that they wouldn’t reflect sound. The seat coverings deteriorated and paint was peeling off the walls.
In the late 1950’s, local businessman Dan Weinberg and his wife Alyce took an interest in restoring the Tivoli to its past grandeur. In 1959, the Weinbergs bought the theatre for $150,000 and eventually renovated and reopened the theater. But by the 1970’s downtown Frederick was deteriorating, businesses were leaving and large, ornate movie houses just could not compete with suburban movie theaters.
In 1975, Dan and Alyce Weinberg and others began advocating the idea of turning the Tivoli into a cultural arts center that could be a driving force in the revitalization of downtown Frederick. In August, 1976, the theater held a 50th anniversary celebration during which initial conversations were held about the Tivoli’s future. But only two months later, the storm-driven waters of Carroll Creek flooded the theater and much of downtown Frederick. The Tivoli was nearly destroyed as water peaked three feet above stage level, submerging the seats and floating the Wurlitzer organ onto the stage. Water filled the theater, along with mud, slime and muck.
Although tearing down the building was an option, individuals and companies in the community decided to donate their services to restore much of the Tivoli’s 1920s elegance. Sixteen months and $175,000 later, on February 9, 1978, the theater reopened as the Weinberg Center for the Arts, named in honor of the Weinberg family, who donated the building to the City of Frederick. The building was now equipped to showcase live performances and theater as well as film.
The Weinberg Today
The center is still owned and operated by the City of Frederick, with the support of the Weinberg Center for the Arts Inc.—a nonprofit organization created in 1995. A capital campaign was started in 2008 to raise funds with the goal to reflect the center’s original style while offering more modern comfort and technology. Thanks to tremendous community support, the campaign goal was reached, and renovations officially began in the summer of 2011. Updates include new carpeting, refurbishing of the outdoor ticket booth, and new chandeliers. In the grand lobby a new ticket desk has been built. A lighter color scheme was used to brighten the spaces and meticulous decorative painting adorns the grand lobby, vestibule and mezzanine bar area.
Since it began presenting live theater in 1978, the Weinberg has drawn such famous names as Marcel Marceau, Hal Holbrook, George Carlin, Judy Collins, Tammy Wynette, Garrison Keillor, the Temptations, Michael Moore, and Tom Jones to Frederick. Broadway plays and musicals have graced the stage, as well as symphony orchestras, choirs, comedians, dance groups, bands, storytellers and other live performances.
Classic and silent movies are still a crowd favorite, accompanied by the beloved Wurlitzer organ. The theater offers about 150 events annually, and numerous local arts groups perform at the Weinberg to raise funds for their organizations. Today, the Weinberg Center for the Arts is regarded as the county’s home for the performing arts, and the former Tivoli is once again a source of entertainment and pride for the community. With ongoing renovations and an impressive variety of exciting arts entertainment, “The Jewel of Frederick” shines brighter than ever.