When the Foster Theatre opened in 1938, it was the second movie theater on Youngstown’s South Side. Its arrival made headlines in Hollywood, with studio heads like the Warner Brothers even writing to congratulate the theater’s president, Joseph Shagrin Sr. Those days were long gone by the time I was old enough to realize that the Foster Theatre wasn’t like the movie theaters we drove elsewhere to patronize.
It now stands as the last movie theater on the South Side and one of the last remaining landmarks of the once bustling Fosterville district. Until it was purchased by YNDC in 2021, the theater also had the distinction of being one of only 35 remaining adult theaters in the country.
Now, far be it for me to judge or malign the adult industry, but one thing that has held about adult theaters since they emerged in shared public spaces in the late 1960s is that they tend to be a little seedy.
Growing up in the 1990s, it felt as though every trip down Glenwood Avenue happened in the shadow of the theater. This hulking building takes up an amount of space commensurate with its long-lost status. The former glamorous movie house was an eyesore when I was old enough to notice it. And I had been sufficiently warned about it without being given details beyond my pay grade as a kid.
What I did realize, however, was that this particular building was constantly patronized by people who did not live in my community. An interesting thing happens when transient visitors frequent a neighborhood in transition or disrepair: They treat the area and its people in ways they would never consider on their side of town. Of course, this is not always the case. But we’re talking about Glenwood in the 1990s.
Despite some residents’ reluctance, the recent acquisition of the theater by the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation is perhaps a sign of a new era.
The purchase is part of YNDC’s ongoing project to revitalize the Glenwood neighborhood.
“Our purpose was to remove the XXX theater along the Glenwood [Avenue] corridor,” Tiffany Sokol, YNDC’s housing director, said last summer when the building was acquired. “We wanted it gone. We also want to preserve the structure. We don’t have a specific plan yet, but it’s our goal to repurpose the building.”
While Foster’s future remains unclear, this is a step in the right direction for residents.
“I was excited to find out YNDC bought it,” said 5th Ward Councilwoman Lauren McNally, who represents the Glenwood community. “To clean it up and out so it can be used as a productive part of the community is exciting.”
If nothing else, the restoration of the Foster Theatre will serve as another reminder of the promise Youngstown once held and everything that remains within reach for future generations in our community and surrounding neighborhoods.