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 August, 2007


 Those Wonderful Days of Daylong Movies in Uniontown

Whatever Happened to Tarzan?

By Al Owens
I’m coming to you today with a heavy heart. I have a confession to make. Nancy Vernon, if you’re reading this, you just may want to convene a grand jury – because what I’m about to tell you reveals the lurid details of my troubled youth.

When I was about 10 years-old I used to sneak into the movies. There. I’ve said it. Lock me up and throw away the key!

I’ve carried the burden of my “criminal past” for a long time, Ms. Vernon. I hope I can plea bargain my sentence down to time spent thinking fondly of those days.

Oh! I used to sneak into other places too. I remember the time my older cousin, Carol Ford, helped a group of us kids sneak under the fence at a football game at Uniontown High School.

She lifted the fence, made sure we were completely under it and inside the stadium before she yelled, “Hey! They’re trying to sneak in.” It’s funny, even though we got caught and were thrown out of that game - Carol is still one of my favorite cousins.

But sneaking into movie theatres back then required stealth and cunning. To gain free access to the Moonlight and Starlight Drive-ins, for instance, you had to plan ahead.

One of the older kids would drive, while there could be as many as a half dozen kids (We must have looked like those clowns who climb out of Volkswagens at the circus) crammed into the trunk of his car.

Once the driver bought his ticket and drove to a spot near the back of the outdoor theatre, we only had one worry. Supposing he forgot we were still in his trunk. We could have been relegated to a life of trunkdom! Fortunately, that never happened.

Sneaking into those Saturday matinees at the State Theatre in Uniontown, on the other hand, required coordination and teamwork.

Ms. Vernon, if you’re still reading this, I’m wondering if I can get a reduced sentence if I squeal on one of my co-conspirators. His name is Curt Tollar. Yep! (For the record, when I told Mr. Tollar that I was about to “give him up” to the authorities for his role in our adolescent escapades at the State Theatre, he laughed, and then said, “Go right ahead. Man, those were the days, weren’t they!”)

While the hundreds of kids lined up outside of the State Theatre on Main Street, other kids (like Curt or myself) would drift around to Peter Street and wait at the metal door at the back of the theatre.

Once the designated ticket-buyer got his ticket, he’d “ease” down the left side of the theatre, and through that narrow hallway beneath exit sign.

Curt and his friends were waiting right outside. You’d open the door and there would be a mad dash to our seats. Bingo! Eight kids for the price of one.

Ms. Vernon, if this case ever goes to court, I’ll have to offer a character witness. His name is Tarzan. That’s right! Tarzan.

He’s the guy who made all of those glorious Saturday mornings possible when we were kids. He was the manager and promoter at the State Theatre. Most of us probably never really knew his last name. All we knew was that he was always impeccably dressed, in a sports coat, tie and a fedora – and we called him Tarzan.

If you know anybody else, from any other town, you tell them that clear proof that growing up in Uniontown, Pennsylvania was once the greatest place on earth to grow up, because the guy who managed our Saturday matinees was named – TARZAN!

I’d always been curious about Tarzan’s real name. When I found him, I immediately confessed that I used to sneak into the State Theatre when I was a kid. I was relieved when he replied, “That was OK! I used to do that too!” Whew! The weight of the world was lifted from my shoulders, because even Tarzan knew that old back door maneuver.

I then asked him if Tarzan is really his name. He explained that his real name is Armando Mark Sementa. He’d later change his first name from Armando to Elmer when he was a school kid, and he’d earned the nickname Tarzan, when he was really a very young man.

He says he used to swim a lot at Yough Dam and at Sunset Beach near Morgantown. He became such a good swimmer that they gave him the nickname “Tarzan”.

But, of course, the character Tarzan in all of those movies wasn’t simply known for his swimming, until you consider who played him - Johnny Weissmuller!

Weissmuller had played in a dozen Tarzan movies after he’d won Olympic swimming medals, and he set 67 world records in swimming.

Sementa, at 79 years of age, still seems to have enough energy and passion to swim a couple laps, and to face hundreds of eager young kids hungry to see a half dozens movies.

For us, he was the cruise director on a stationary cruise ship. One that would cast off every Saturday morning and head, magically, to the center of the earth, to the bottom of the sea, or Around the World in 80 Days! Sementa recalls those days fondly. “You’ve got to like something that you’re doing. And I liked people. Customer service was the key,” he beams.

Sementa started working at Uniontown’s theatres in 1956. He learned early in his career that dressing and speaking well was an integral part of the “show”. “I used to use double negatives. And I went to a tutor out at Mt. Macrina to get rid of them,” he says. That, too, was part of the job.

He retired in 1986. He’d obviously helped provide precious memories for thousands of young children who’d flock each week to see what he had to offer.

“They say, ‘Hey there Tarzan’, and then they tell me how good it used to be.”

That kind of good feeling gets passed from generation-to-generation. I don’t know anybody who grew up during those days in Uniontown who hasn’t told their children how important it was to see Mickey Mouse, The Three Stooges, Captain Video, Lash Larue and Porky Pig – before a half dozen full length features.

“They tell their children, and their children say, ‘I know you. My father talks about you all the time,’ Sementa says.

Sementa was not only the manager and promoter – he was a showman. I can remember Saturdays around Halloween when we could see five straight horror movies.

I was probably 26 years-old before I realized that the Frankenstein monster that terrorized the aisles during one fateful intermission wasn’t the REAL Frankenstein monster. Tarzan Sementa had been it again. He was giving us screaming kids a bang for our 35 cents.

I still remember him standing near the ticket window at the State Theatre - undaunted by the possibility that some kid just may forget it was a movie, and try to run up on the stage and try to fly off with the Masked Marvel. But I think Tarzan Sementa was prepared for that kind of thing. “Show business,” he says. “You never know what’s going to happen.”

That’s exactly how we all felt Mr. Sementa. We never knew, and that’s what made our experiences at the State Theatre in Uniontown, Pennsylvania so memorable.

Thanks Tarzan!