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Glory days of Foster Theater in Youngstown revisited

TODAY'S FEATURED ATTRACTION: GONE WITH THE FOSTER

Ian Beniston, Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. executive director, stands in front of the Foster Theatre on Glenwood Avenue. The YNDC acquired the property to fix it up and improve the neighborhood. Beniston said YNDC plans to improve the marquee and facade, but it has not decided yet how the building will be used. The theater has been closed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. ..Staff photo / Ed Runyan

YOUNGSTOWN — One of the people most excited by news that the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. has purchased the closed Foster Theatre on Glenwood Avenue is Steven “Shags” Shagrin of Walnut Creek, Calif.

Shagrin is a grandson of Joseph Shagrin Sr., the man who built and ran the Foster from Dec. 26, 1938, until his retirement in December 1965.

Steven’s grandfather had the vision to build a movie theater in a neighborhood setting, selecting a site near Idora Park and Mill Creek Park on the city’s South Side, according to his obituary. He had predicted the expansion of business into the neighborhood before shopping centers were popular.

“My grandfather was the very first one to break away from downtown,” Steven noted. “He said, ‘You gotta put it in the neighborhood. That’s where the people are.’ That was brilliant because the bus line ran from Mill Creek Park out to Idora Park. And what was on the way? The Foster Theatre. People could go out to Fosterville, they could watch a movie for a nickel, a dime, maybe a quarter.”

Years later, “everybody moved to the suburbs,” Steven said.

Although the Foster Theatre has been in recent decades an X-rated movie theater, a Foster advertisement from 1938 states it once provided “wholesome entertainment for all of the family all of the time.”

Steven Shagrin grew up in the Youngstown area and moved to California in 2006. He never realized the value of learning more about his grandfather until after his grandfather died, he said.

“I wish I would have had the opportunity talk to him about his early years in the entertainment business,” Steven said. “When he died, I was 17, so I was just coming of age and wanting to know family history, and he couldn’t remember anything then.”

ART FILMS

As manager of the theater, Joseph Shagrin Sr. was “among the first managers of neighborhood houses to realize the importance of art films,” according to his obituary. He later “made it one of the leading art theaters in the country for a city the size of Youngstown.”

He died April 1, 1974.

Joseph and his twin brother, Max, grew up in Youngstown and knew the Warner brothers of Youngstown — Harry, Sam, Albert and Jack.

The Warner family invested in a movie projector in the early 1900s and traveled across Ohio, Pennsylvania, and neighboring states, showing movies in tents, according to the ohiohistorycentral.org website.

The brothers bought their first movie theater in 1903 in New Castle, Pa., then invested in other theaters in Youngstown and in the surrounding area.

In 1907, the brothers began to produce movies, then established a movie production company in California in 1918 and created the Warner Bros. Co. in 1923.

They built the Warner Theater — now known as the DeYor Performing Arts Center — on West Federal Steet in downtown Youngstown in 1931.

ATYPICAL STYLE

The Foster Theatre building has an architectural style that is “atypical of the Mahoning Valley” and worthy of being preserved, said Ian Beniston, Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. executive director.

He said the YNDC plans to restore the theater’s marquee and facade, but it has not decided yet how the building will be used.

Because the theater showed X-rated films for so long, neighborhood residents have not viewed it very positively. Beniston said he would like to change that perception.

“There has not been much of a neighborhood attachment,” he said.

“It is hard to see it in its present state, but it’s important to keep buildings like this,” he said. “You could not rebuild it if you tried.”

He said the cost to renovate the theater is probably “seven figures.”

The YNDC has created a gofundme page to raise money for the renovation. Its title is “Restore the Foster Theater Marquee!”

Many people do not realize that the building was designed to have a theater in the center but to have two businesses on the left and right of the theater entrance. Steven Shagrin remembers it having a florist on the left side and a candy store on the right.

EARLY CAREER

The twin brothers had significant careers in the entertainment industry and worked in the theater business in Youngstown for many years.

In the 1920s, Joseph Shagrin Sr. managed the Park Theater, which opened in 1901 on South Champion Street.

The Park Theater was the training ground for Al Jolson, who was “known in the industry as ‘The World’s Greatest Entertainer’ for well over 40 years, according to the IMDb web site. Jolson was a longtime friend of the Shagrins, the obituary states.

Earlier in Joseph’s career, he worked as manager of the Grand Opera House on the southwest corner of Central Square, Youngstowns’ first true theater, which opened in 1872, according to the cinematreasures.org website.

The Shagrin twins were classmates of Jack Warner, and Joseph Shagrin gave Jack of Warner Brothers fame his first job in the entertainment business.

Max Shagrin later worked for the Warner Brothers, becoming zone manager for 14 Warner Brothers movie theaters in Los Angeles.

Max later became one of Hollywood’s best-known agents, Joseph Shagrin’s obituary states.

Warner Bros. Entertainment, now owned by Time Warner, is the No. 1 movie production company of all time, according to reelrundown.com.

Max Shagrin died in Hollywood in 1969. Steven said he and his father, Joseph Shagrin Jr., found many Vindicator articles about the twins at Max Shagrin’s home in California after Max died.

erunyan@vindy.com

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