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Fostering a new future: Iconic Youngstown theater gets new life

Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation's revitalization of the Glenwood Avenue corridor continues with its acquisition of the neighborhood's cinema-turned-pornographic theater.

YOUNGSTOWN — About a year before she was born, Lana Shagrin Oyer’s dad welcomed another baby into the world: the Foster Theatre. 

Joe Shagrin opened Youngstown’s first neighborhood theater in 1938 “on a Christmas night to a packed house,” Esther Hamilton wrote in the Youngstown Vindicator in 1955.  

He and his associates reportedly spent $100,000 to build the playhouse at 2504 Glenwood Ave. Now, 82 years later, the dilapidated remnant of a once-prosperous Fosterville was sold for $99,999.

The iconic theater — which until the pandemic showed pornographic films and has fallen into disrepair — will get a second (or perhaps third) life with reinvestment from the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation.

Mr. Showbiz

When 81-year-old Lana Oyer grew up in Youngstown, her dad Joe "was really kind of famous." 

Oyer, who has lived in Phoenix for the last 30 years, said her father, a titan of Youngstown's mid-century theater scene, managed multiple theaters downtown and traveled to New York weekly looking for new shows to bring back to Youngstown.  

"He was known as Mr. Showbiz," she said. "He also was called the man that knew Broadway, because everybody knew him walking down the street."

At the Foster's grand opening, "Flowers from friends and associates lined the lobby. Among those who sent wires were Jack and Harry Warner, former Youngstown men and close personal friends of Shagrin," a Vindicator report read. 

When the theater opened, it primarily showed westerns and family movies, Oyer said.

"My memory of the theater is selling popcorn and candy in the lobby," she laughed. "Sometimes I would take tickets." 

Oyer's nephew, Steven Shagrin, who lives near San Francisco, said he, too, helped out at the family business. 

"My grandfather would take me, and some days we would stop at R.L. Lipton Distributing and pick up some candy and popcorn," Steven said. "He would tell me, 'Go pick out what you want. We'll see if it sells.'"

Sometimes, Steven was tasked with walking around the theater with a flashlight to make sure no one opened the side doors to let their friends in for free. 

Shagrin eventually introduced art house films to the theater as well. 

He sold the theater before his death in 1974.

Second life

Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation Director Ian Beniston has had his eye on the Foster Theatre for about 15 years. 

He remembers hearing from local residents about the neighborhood's seedy eyesore as early as 2007. 

"Most neighbors didn't want it there because of what it represents," said Beniston. They told him the XXX theater attracted its patrons to their quiet residential neighborhood. 

In addition to showing pornographic films, it sold films and functioned as an adult store. 

It became more urgent to address when a neighborhood park opened a block from the theater in 2014, Beniston said. 

To many in the neighborhood, the theater had become "another sign of decline," he described. 

YNDC's foray into commercial development dovetailed nicely with the owner's desire to retire. On June 9, YNDC purchased the theater, which has not reopened since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. 

"It's a cool building," said Beniston. "Preserving that building was another aspect of it."

The theater has not been substantially updated since it was built, so renovating the building will be "a huge amount of work," he said. 

"I'm very, very happy they're going to do something about it," said Oyer. 

Glenwood corridor

After purchasing the Foster Theatre, YNDC changed the theater marquee to read: "Revitalize."

"We wanted to put that up there so people knew that something different was happening and it wasn't a XXX theater," Beniston said. "Revitalize is a word we put on just about everything. ... It also, I think, marks change. It marks, perhaps, the building reaching more of its potential in the future."

Given the financial challenges of sustaining a nonprofit theater, the building may be transformed to support another use. But Beniston plans to maintain the building's historic marquee. 

Steven Shagrin joked that the building would make a good skate park, due to the sloping of the floor, which was crucial to the building's function as a theater. 

Beniston doesn’t yet have a timeline for the renovation but noted it might take more time than usual, given the “complexity of the building,” he described. 

But the acquisition was an accomplishment in itself. 

“The first goal was just to simply end the use as a porno theater,” Beniston said. 

The next step is surveying residents on potential uses for the building. 

Renovating the Foster Theatre is “just a piece” of YNDC’s vision for the Glenwood Avenue corridor. 

YNDC’s “pipeline of projects” includes renovating nearby vacant homes and a commercial plaza several blocks south of the theater the organization purchased in January

The plaza at the corner of Glenwood Avenue and Canfield Road has four storefronts, one of which will remain a restaurant. Beniston wants to put a small fresh market in one of the other spaces.  

“Hopefully we’re slowly turning another page," he said. "And I think as we continue making progress, there's going to be some lessons here for other corridors and streets in the city and even surrounding municipalities."

Jess Hardin

About the Author: Jess Hardin

Jess Hardin is a reporter for Mahoning Matters. She grew up in Pittsburgh and last worked at The Vindicator. Jess graduated from Georgetown University.
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