TOWANDA - When John L. Sullivan, who became a United States heavyweight boxing champion in the late 1800s, fought in the Keystone Theatre in Towanda, there were 1,500 people in the audience.

Today the theater seats 460.

"There was talk of putting posts up" to hold the large crowd in the theater's balcony during Sullivan's performance, where he would have fought against local men, said Brooks Eldredge-Martin, emeritus executive director of the Bradford County Regional Arts Council, as he led a tour on Thursday of the theater.

The theater, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, has a lot of history to it, Martin said.

In conjunction with the 125th anniversary, an opening reception took place on Thursday at the theater for a month-long exhibit of historical artifacts from the council's three theaters. Some of the artifacts are also on display in the Washington Street Station, which is located directly behind the theater.

The reception, which was open to the public, also included tours of the theater and refreshments.

Here are some other highlights of the theater's history:

-In 1892, John Philip Sousa, who wrote many famous marches, including "Stars and Stripes Forever," performed with his new Marine Band at the Keystone Theatre (which at that time was called Hale's Opera House) for the first time, said Bradford County Regional Arts Council intern Mary Williams, who worked on organizing the exhibit.

- At one time, there was even an elephant on the Keystone Theatre's stage, which was part of a performance by a traveling circus, Eldredge-Martin said. There used to be a train track directly behind the theater, allowing props to be moved from the train cars directly up a ramp to the back of the stage, said Elaine Poost, executive director of the BCRAC, which owns and operates the theater.

The elephant would have been brought up on such a ramp, she said. The props were brought in to the back of the theater through a large set of doors, which is six feet off the ground.

- In 1961, Donna Hatch, who was the first licensed female projectionist in Pennsylvania, began working at the Keystone Theatre, according to the arts council.

At the time, movie projectionists had to be licensed because of the fire hazards associated with showing movies, Eldredge-Martin said. Nitrate film, which was used in the past, was very flammable. And measures had to be taken to fireproof the Keystone Theatre's projection booth, Williams said.

The exhibit includes, among other things, a seat from the time when the theater was Hale's Opera House, photos and posters of performers at the theater, and old projection equipment.

A new page in the theater's history is about to begin, as the theater makes its conversion to digital film projection. This conversion is expected to occur in October, Eldredge-Martin said.

The $120,000 conversion is a necessity as film companies are switching to digital movies, he said. And revenue from the showing of movies in the council's three theaters is critical to keeping the three theaters open, he said.

The $360,000 total price tag for the conversion to digital projection in the three theaters, along with a $140,000, nearly-completed project to repair the damage caused by Tropical Storm Lee to the Keystone Theatre, has left the council "struggling" financially, Eldredge-Martin said.

The arts council is seeking donations from the community to help pay for the conversion to digital technology and the flood repair project, Poost said.

James Loewenstein can be reached at (570) 265-1633; or email: jloewenstein@thedailyreview.com.