More than a century old and still sharp as a tack, Walter Strine Sr. strutted his stuff Aug. 19 when he attended a concert featuring singer Roger Ricker at the Media Theatre.

“He had his white suit on and he stayed for the whole evening. He was very ebullient and he was very happy,” said Media Theatre Executive Director Patrick Ward.

Last Friday, Ward called the centenarian at his home in Plush Mills, a retirement community in Nether Providence, and told him his invitation was in the mail for the Oct. 2 opening of “Showboat.”

“He indicated to me he wasn’t feeling very well but he would ‘try like heck to get there,’ that’s what he said,” remembered Ward.

The Media real estate magnate won’t be occupying his favorite front-row seat, B102, next Friday. Monday, he died at his residence, eight months after his 100th birthday.

“In the history of Media, Walter Strine had as large an impact as anyone. You look around Media and you see Walter Strine in the Media Theatre, the office buildings, the apartments, the homes,” said Media Mayor Bob McMahon.

Born in Milton, Northumberland County, Strine was a 1929 graduate of the Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades in Middletown. Trained as a bricklayer, he taught at the Glen Mills School in Thornbury and sold real estate on weekends. He started his real estate business in 1937 with the purchase of 15 E. Baltimore Ave., a house he converted into seven apartments.

It led to the formation of Media Real Estate, Commonwealth Real Estate Investors and Keystone Care Corp., among other businesses. His empire, which he operated with sons, Walter Jr. and William, included apartment buildings, nursing homes, and assisted-living and personal-care facilities.

“I changed the appearance of Media by investing millions of dollars in the town on a strictly business basis. That was my livelihood,” Strine told the Daily Times in 2002.

One of his favorite buildings was the Media Theatre, a movie palace built by Samuel Dembow at 104 E. State St., which, as a Williamson student, Strine watched being built in 1927.

In 1973, he and his sons purchased the theater that went through a variety of proprietors who attempted to revive it as a movie house and live performance space. In 1993, Strine spent $1.5 million to restore the ornate English renaissance-style structure to its former glory and re-opened it as a center for the performing arts in 1994.

For almost a decade, shows were staged there under the auspices of a for-profit Strine family business, Rockwell Productions, that also oversaw operations of the Grand Candlelight Dinner Theatre in the old Milton High School that Strine converted into a retirement community called Rockwell Center.

When the production company folded, Strine went to bat for the Media Theatre, intervening on at least three occasions to prevent its closure, noted McMahon.

“I said, ‘Well, I have more love for the theater, so I’m going to keep it going,’” Strine told the Daily Times in 2002.

In 2003, Strine was a key figure in negotiations with borough and state officials that attracted state grant money enabling Media borough to acquire the theater as a non-profit center for the performing arts.

“Without Walter Strine’s efforts in those negotiations, there would not be a theater there now,” said McMahon.

Strine attributed his devotion to Media Theatre to the love he had for his wife of more than 70 years, Elizabeth Sterling Strine, who died Sept. 7, 2002, at the age of 94. She was an accomplished pianist who Strine first spotted playing the organ at Middletown Presbyterian Church in 1928.

“With the history I had with the theater, I didn’t want to see it disturbed,” said Strine, who, with his wife, formed the Community Concert Association that staged performances there in the ’50s.

He also sponsored a scholarship in his wife’s name for her 75th birthday at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

Strine was dedicated to his alma mater as well.

He served as vice chairman of Williamson’s board of trustees for 25 years and donated $3 million for the building of the school’s Strine Learning Center. In addition, he financed Williamson’s annual summer education program.

“He also had the distinction of being our oldest living alumnus at the time of his passing. He was a good friend of Williamson who will be greatly missed,” said Williamson Board of Trustees Chairman Wayne C. Watson.

Strine developed a fondness for carillons after he and his wife heard them on a trip to the Swiss Alps, so he donated a set that is atop the roof of Williamson’s main building. He also donated carillons to six churches in the Media area, said McMahon.

Media Theatre Artistic Director Jesse Cline, who first met Strine in 1989 when he was hired as artistic director for Rockwell Productions, said he valued Strine’s guidance.

“He was here for every show and sometimes would come back two or three times. Everybody comes to shows and has opinions of shows. He was probably the most valid critic I’ve ever known,” said Cline. “Even though he never studied theater, he was usually on the money.”

The Media Theatre for the Performing Arts’ first show in February 1994 was one of Strine’s favorites, “My Fair Lady,” which was revived there last year in his honor, noted Ward.

The last musical Strine attended at his beloved theater was “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” in May. In the summer, Strine also made it to the theater to watch the Delco Idol competition and the concert performed by Ricker, the theater’s publicity director. As usual, when Strine was introduced to the audience, he received standing ovations.

Up until last spring, when Strine moved out of his Media home on the 700 block of North Jackson Street, Cline and Ward would regularly visit with him in his foyer, sharing the news of the borough and listening to the centenarian’s latest business advice for the theater.

Said Ward, “He always called it ‘the dream factory’ and said the Media Theatre was in the business of selling dreams, and we couldn’t agree more.”

A memorial service for Walter Strine Sr. will be held 10 a.m. Tuesday at Media Presbyterian Church, 30 E. Baltimore Ave., Media. Visitation will be 6-8 p.m. Monday at J. Nelson Rigby Funeral Home, 1 W. Baltimore Ave., Media, and 9-9:45 a.m. Tuesday at the church.
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