Pittsburgh's independent music source
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Greensburg's historic Palace Theatre: A music venue for the ages

The modern Palace Theatre in Downtown Greensburg, Pa.
Katie Blackley
The modern Palace Theatre in Downtown Greensburg, Pa.

The block where The Palace Theatre sits first became an entertainment locale in 1880, when an opera-loving physician built a theater next to his home. A second theater popped up next door. On that spot, the Manos family created the larger Manos Theatre, opened in 1926. Moviegoers were dazzled by its French Renaissance interior, teeming with brass railings, marble staircases, custom-painted murals, ornate molding, tiled floors and a golden marble ticket booth.

Musical legends in nearly all genres have graced the stage at Downtown Greensburg’s Palace Theatre, some at pivotal times in their careers. I remember one such occasion.

Oct. 27, 1993: Johnny Cash comes to town

When the legendary Johnny Cash played the Palace, people were taking notice again, thanks to his searing performance of “The Wanderer” on U2’s “Zooropa” album. Just months earlier, he recorded the songs for his acclaimed, Grammy-winning 1994 “American Recordings” album.

In 18 years with “Country Music Magazine,” then the biggest such publication in America, I’d written occasional commentaries on Cash. My publisher, a Cash friend, arranged for us to meet before the matinee. The evening show was sold out; I think he knew the matinee wasn’t.

We talked a bit. He stared out at the empty theater.

"So you live here, huh?" he asked.

"Yep," I replied.

With a “Good meetin’ ya, Rich,” he went backstage to prepare. Miniscule crowd aside, Cash and his troupe delivered a roaring, incandescent show worthy of a packed house.

Westmoreland Cultural Trust Chief Operating Officer Teresa Baughman has watched the Palace blossom. “When I started in 1995, we had fewer than 50 shows a year, including 20 national acts. We currently have 110 shows on our schedule for 2024 with 80 of those being national touring events,” she said.
Some performers have appeared multiple times, Baughman said.

“Artists enjoy the charm of our historic venue, the work ethic and experience of our stage crew, the warmth of our audiences, and the relative intimacy of playing a venue our size. Not too big, not too small.”

Greensburg’s once-moribund business district has enjoyed a gradual turnaround that’s morphed into a veritable arts and music explosion centered around the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, the Summersounds concerts in St. Clair Park and, of course, the Palace.

Chubby Checker performs at The Palace Theatre.
Courtesy of The Palace Theatre
Chubby Checker performs at The Palace Theatre.

Baughman agrees. “We are sure the Palace has been a catalyst in the past three decades in spurring a higher caliber of entertainment and economic development in the region, with more downtown dining options and a resurgence in new small businesses in recent years.”

Everyone who’s attended Palace shows have memories, and I just thought of another.

May, 1997: Twilight of an Outlaw

From the time Waylon Jennings began singing, something seemed off. Known for his powerful voice, his breathing was labored whether he sang or spoke. Yet he pressed on, bringing out wife Jessi Colter for a solo spot and duets. But even the band seemed concerned as he battled through a couple more solo numbers before the show ended abruptly.

As a few in the crowd griped the show was too brief, I headed down to the front entrance and watched his Silver Eagle tour bus speed out of town, The next day, I called Hazel Smith, “Country Music’s” gossip columnist and a former Waylon employee, He was already in a Nashville hospital being treated for emphysema. He'd retire from touring in 1998. Like his buddy Cash, he hit the Palace stage determined to play, hell or high water. It was more than a performance; it was an act of courage.

With 2026, the Palace’s centennial year, looming, Baughman explains more upgrades are coming and the restoration is a work in progress. “We hope to do several cosmetic and purposely upgrades as well as mechanical upgrades (HVAC) before the centennial.”

Ricky Nelson performs at The Palace Theatre.
Courtesy of The Palace Theatre
Ricky Nelson performs at The Palace Theatre.

That will all happen with brand-new CEO Benjamin Luczak, a Westmoreland County native who, in his youth, performed at the Palace before embarking on a career in nonprofit management. He calls it ”a lifelong dream come true –to serve as CEO in the community I grew up in. My entire life’s work has prepared me for this role – from my humble beginnings as an actor on these stages."

He also hopes to expand the WCT’s reach beyond Greensburg and to try new concert ideas, to “recommit to our mission as a cultural stimulation for Westmoreland County and the surrounding region. I’d like to see a Family Series, a Dance Series and a Jazz Series. I’d also like to expand our free programming and take performances to local community parks.”

On top of that is the Trust’s upcoming 2024 “Rhythms of Summer” concert series.at the Garden Center and in the Palace’s courtyard, which will feature local artists.

The Palace’s fascinating history including details of its ongoing restoration efforts, including a video tour hosted by COO Teresa Baughman, can be found here.

Rich Kienzle is an award-winning music critic, journalist and historian and author of three books. A former contributing editor of "Country Music Magazine" and "No Depression," his work has appeared in "Texas Monthly," the "Austin American-Statesman," "Fretboard Journal" and the "Pittsburgh Post-Gazette." He has also authored liner notes for numerous historic CD reissues.