Over the past 100 years, the Hiway Theater has changed hands, names, and appearance many times, but has always remained a destination for the Jenkintown community. Located on Old York Road in the center of Jenkintown, the theater was built in 1913 and was known as the Jenkintown Auditorium. Architect for the building in 1913 was Albert F. Schenck (1877-1931). The exterior at that time was dominated by a large 2 story arched entryway.
In 1925, the auditorium interior received a redesign from architect William H. Lee (1884-1971), in collaboration with the Gibelli Company, prominent theatre designers of Philadelphia. Lee is believed to have raised the ceiling of the theatre by getting rid of the offices above and eliminated one of the flanking stores. At this point, the theatre was screening silent films and operating under the name of The Embassy Theatre. In 1929, sound was added.
In 1936, the theatre underwent a reconstruction on the exterior and the interior from architect William E. Groben (1883-1961). Groben’s main contribution appears to be the elimination of Schenck’s arched entryway, the addition of a marquee and ticket booth and a refurbishing of the interior. The building underwent a name change in 1936 and became known as the York Road Theatre.
In 1940, the movie house changed hands and received another name – changing to the Hiway Theatre and continued to operate under until the 1980’s.
By the 1980's the building appeared rundown and was purchased by Irvin Merlin in 1985. Merlin renamed the theatre after himself – the Merlin Theatre. He completed upgrades to the sound system and replaced the seating.
In the 1990’s, it changed hands again and was purchased by Charles Peruto, Jr. who named it the Chas III for his son.
In 2003, it was incorporated as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and began operating under the name recalled affectionately by many Montgomery County and Philadelphia residents – The Hiway Theatre.
In 2011, a new neon tower was installed replicating the classic look the original tower and creating a glowing beacon on Old York Road.
In 2013, the theater made the transition to Digital Cinema through the support and generous gifts of patrons and members.
Text courtesy of Rob Harper; excerpted from his article for Old York Road Historical Society Bulletin