News Column

Movie palaces of bygone days light up again thanks to community support

September 5, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 05--Bob Cinalli remembers seeing "Ma and Pa Kettle" movies at the Parkway Theater in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

"Lots of other good pictures then -- Pat Boone in 'April Love' and Alan Ladd in 'Shane,' " he recalled.

Mr. Cinalli, 72, was back at the theater in Stowe recently to see "Scarface," a 1932 gangster film starring Paul Muni. The screening of "Scarface" was part of Gangster Month at the old movie house.

The Parkway, operated by the nonprofit Community Reel Arts Center, is one of at least four former picture palaces in suburban Pittsburgh to have found new life in recent years. Efforts are underway to restore and reopen at least one more old theater, the Denis in Mt. Lebanon, while organizers in Sewickley are raising $1.5 million to open a new two-screen cinema as part of a downtown office, retail and garage project.

See a show, make a donation

The Denis Theatre Foundation, 685 Washington Road, Mt. Lebanon. Call 412-668-0737 or visit www.denistheatre.org for more information or to donate.

Hollywood Theater, 1449 Potomac Ave., Dormont. Call 412-563-0368, email info@thehollywooddormont.org or visit thehollywooddormont.org.

The Palace Theatre Center for the Performing Arts, 21 W. Otterman St., Greensburg. Call 724-836-8000 or visit www.thepalacetheatre.org.

Parkway Theater, 644 Broadway Ave., Stowe. Call 412-766-1668, email lincolnbarber@yahoo.com or visit Facebook/The Parkway Theater, using any browser.

The Strand Theater, 119 N. Main St., Zelienople. Call 724-742-0400 or visit thestrandtheater.org.

Village Theater Co., Sewickley. Visit villagetheatercompany.com.

This year's annual Day of Giving is Oct. 3. Donations made on that day to dozens of 501c3 organizations in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties, including some nonprofit theaters, will be partially matched by foundation grants.

More information, including a list of eligible organizations, will be posted later this month at the website www.pittsburghgives.org.

The revived theaters have followed different paths.

The Strand in Zelienople, which began life in 1914 as a vaudeville theater and then turned to showing movies, was shuttered for 25 years before it reopened in 2009. It now offers audiences a mix of live entertainment, recent feature films and classic motion pictures.

Dormont's Hollywood Theater began as a single-screen cinema in the 1920s. Its "Friends" organization is now in the middle of a fundraising effort to keep it up-to-date by buying a digital projector.

The Palace in Greensburg, built in 1926 as the Manos Theater, also began life as a venue for live entertainment. Stage stars including Al Jolson performed there. Warner Bros. bought the building in 1930 and converted it into a movie theater, retaining members of the Manos family to operate it. Now owned and run by the Westmoreland Cultural Trust, it offers about 100 live shows per year.

Aaron Stubna, president of the nonprofit that operates the Parkway, wants to turn that theater, used recently as a church youth center, into a nighttime entertainment destination. It is located on Stowe's appropriately named Broadway Street. He sees a 90-seat theater combined with a coffee shop and bistro where patrons can make an evening of it. They can dine or buy drinks and then settle into comfortable seats to watch a film or hear a jazz combo.

Back to roots

Planning, fundraising, design and construction took eight years before Zelienople's Strand Theater reopened July 16, 2009. The new theater seats 287 people, including 72 in the balcony.

Upcoming programs this month include a live production of "Assisted Living: The Musical" and "Into Darkness," the latest installment in the "Star Trek" movie saga. "Angels in the Outfield," a 1951 film about the Pittsburgh Pirates needing heavenly intervention, will be screened Sept. 13 and 15.

"This restoration has taken the theater back to its roots," Ron Carter said. "What we have is a multipurpose cultural center." Mr. Carter is board president and executive director of the Strand.

While the house has a up-to-date digital projection system, the movie theater's old carbon-arc projectors, dating from about 1939, remain in place at the back of the theater, which is at 119 N. Main St.

The Strand's small apron stage already has provided performing space for artists such as John Oates, Joan Osborne, B.E. Taylor and the Celtic Tenors. Entertainers like the intimacy of the theater, with no seat more than 25 feet from the stage, Mr. Carter said.

While musicians and singers are likely to be appearing in much larger theaters on the weekends, a stop in Zelienople for a midweek performance can fill an open spot on their schedules.

"The word is out that we can't pay that much, but we treat performers very well," Mr. Carter said.

Culture, economy meet

Shows at Greensburg's Palace Theatre generate about $7.1 million annually in additional revenue for restaurants, gift shops, hotels and other local businesses. That was one of the findings in an economic impact study Mullin & Lonergan Associates performed for the Westmoreland Cultural Trust.

"That's the triple effect of having people come from every state in the union and foreign countries to see a show," Trust CEO Mike Langer said.

Some people travel really long distances to see Palace offerings.

Peter Noone, lead singer of Herman's Hermits, will be appearing with his group at the Palace on Oct. 24.

"A lady in Australia has seeing Peter Noone on her 'bucket list,' " Mr. Langer said. "Her husband has seeing the Steelers at home on his 'bucket list.' They are coming to America for the first time, and they'll be able to do both."

The Palace Theatre was struggling when it was acquired by the cultural trust in 1992. A $10 million restoration returned the theater to its elegant 1926 appearance.

"We've had an incredible group of volunteers and supporters, along with a local government that recognized the importance of retaining a downtown theater," Mr. Langer said. "They all rallied together."

The theater at 21 W. Otterman St. is home to about 100 live stage shows per year. It also is the site of another 40 special events and outdoor concerts. The Bricks, a duo that plays classic acoustic rock, will perform a free show from 6 to 9:30 tonight in the theater courtyard.

Broadway bound

The reopening of the Parkway Theater for movies and special events is another element in efforts to bring new life to the township's Broadway Avenue, Stowe Commissioner Ray Puskar said. He is a board member of the Community Reel Arts Center, the nonprofit that operates the theater at 644 Broadway.

New lights have been installed along the commercial thoroughfare and new sidewalks and landscaping are to follow.

Mr. Stubna, Reel Arts president, said he hopes films, dinners and small-scale concerts will help boost the neighborhood and the surrounding communities.

"We want to give people another good reason to come to this town," he said.

While he talked about his plans to make the Parkway "the premier art-house cinema in Pittsburgh," he was making popcorn to be sold during the recent screening of "Scarface."

Mr. Stubna's plans have an influential supporter in the neighboring municipality of McKees Rocks.

"I think this theater could have a catalytic effect," said Taris A. Vrcek, executive director of the McKees Rocks Community Development Corp. His organization is undertaking an even more ambitious project: reopening the long-closed Roxian Theater at 425 Chartiers Ave.

Hooray for Hollywood

Dormont's Hollywood Theater has been showing movies on its single screen since the 1920s. Technological change from film to digital projectors, however, means that the 285-seat house at 1449 Potomac Ave. may have to go dark soon unless its board can raise $75,000 for a new projection system.

"It's going pretty well," operations manager Ben Prisbylla said of fundraising efforts. About half the money needed has been pledged, he estimated.

The theater is operated as a 501c3 nonprofit organization by the Friends of the Hollywood Theater. Its offerings for September range from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" to "Sharknado."

Special events coming up this month include a free open house at 7 p.m. Sept. 21. Organist Clark Wilson will perform on the theater's new instrument. The program will include a showing of silent comedies.

The theater will host its first Members Only Party at 6 p.m. Sept. 22. That event will include the screening of a new documentary "The Rep," which is about three men trying to save an independent movie house.

Mr. Prisbylla described the Hollywood as "the last single screen, old-fashioned theater left in the South Hills."

"There are not many theaters like this left in the country," he said.

A vibrant village

Brian Duggan and his wife are looking forward to going on date nights they can walk to when a two-screen cinema opens in Sewickley.

Mr. Duggan is president of the nonprofit Village Theater Co. that is planning and raising money for the $1.5 million project. The theater is proposed for a borough-owned site facing Walnut Street across from Safran's Supermarket. Plans call for one screening room with 225 seats and a second with 150 seats.

Mr. Duggan said he and the other members of the Village Theater board are taking their inspiration in part from the Bryn Mawr Film Institute in suburban Philadelphia. The nonprofit organization with more than 6,300 members has operated a movie theater there since 2005.

When he and his family lived in Summit, N.J., they enjoyed walking to a nearby theater for matinees or for dinner and a movie, Mr. Duggan said.

A new movie theater will help support local restaurants and aid the many other businesses in the borough, he said. More than 300 Village Theater members have donated or pledged more than $1 million toward the project. The board expects to hear later this month on the theater's application for a $350,000 grant from the state's Gaming Economic Development and Tourism Fund. The application will be considered by the Commonwealth Financing Authority at its Sept. 17 meeting in Harrisburg.

Plans call for the state-of-the-art cinema to be managed by Pittsburgh Filmmakers. The theater would offer second-run Hollywood movies and first-run foreign and independent films.

Sewickley had been home to an early "nickelodeon," starting in 1915. That building is now the site of retail stores. Plans call for displaying projection equipment and other memorabilia from that theater in the new cinema, Mr. Duggan said.

"This is a grass-roots project, and support from the broader Sewickley community has been tremendous." he said. "It looks like it does take a village to raise a theater."

'Complementary experience'

Watching a movie in a theater is a very different experience from watching at home, Penny Richichi said. "It becomes a community event," she said.

She and Jane Delano are interim co-chairs of the Denis Theatre Foundation. The nonprofit is raising funds to reopen a 75-year-old cinema in Mt. Lebanon.

"We already have a thriving uptown in Mt. Lebanon with an active restaurant and business community," Ms. Delano said. "Adding a movie experience will give people a chance to have a full evening's entertainment. There is grass-roots enthusiasm for bringing this theater back to life."

She listed the additional amenities likely to be available at the restored venue at 685 Washington Road.

"It will be a community arts center that will offer visual arts displays, a speakers series, film-discussion groups, smaller-scale musical performances and open-mike events," she said.

Plans call for reopening the theater in two phases, with a total fundraising goal of $4.5 million.

No date has been set for starting work.

"We don't want to do the work piecemeal," Ms. Richichi said. "When we start, we want to be confident we have the money to finish,"

Supporters of the foundation expect that Mt. Lebanon's experience will echo in other communities that have seen their movie palaces reopen.

"We think this theater will be a crown jewel of the community that will help to keep the business district vibrant for generations," Ms. Richichi said. "Our mission here is not just to reopen a movie theater ... we are about encouraging education, inspiration and creativity."

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159.

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