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Fade to black: Final credits roll on 61-year-old Cheswick Theatre

Sometime around 10 tonight, an escape hatch from the stresses and problems of the real world will close here for good.

After the closing credits for "Where The Wild Things Are" finish rolling across a screen, the Cheswick Theatre will cease to exist.

"There's no business," said Nick Mulone, theater owner. "There's a lack of people coming to the theater. That's the bottom line of it.

"I didn't want to close it, but there is such a thing that when it starts costing you money, you have no other alternative."

The closing of the four-screen Cheswick Theatre along the north side of Pittsburgh Street comes two years after its sister building, which had two screens, closed.

It's another step toward the end of an era in the Alle-Kiski Valley in which movie lovers flocked to downtown neighborhood theaters in New Kensington, Vandergrift, Cheswick and Tarentum.

Only one such theater remains in the Valley: The Oaks along Allegheny River Boulevard in Oakmont.

Mulone said he considered having an event of some kind to mark the occasion.

"I thought of that, but it was a tough pill to swallow to close it, and I didn't want to do anything," he said, adding that the impending closing was not widely known.

The news caught mover-goer Martha Dorbritz of New Kensington and her three friends by surprise Wednesday night.

"Nobody told us about this," Dorbritz said as she and the three other women bought tickets to an evening showing of "Couples Retreat," starring Vince Vaughn.

Dorbritz, fellow New Kensington residents Dolores Macklin and Betty Sinclair, and Emma Mazur of Arnold said they've been going to the theater every Wednesday for about the past five years.

"We go out of our way to patronize this theater," Macklin said. "We like to come here."

Macklin described the theater as "cozy."

The women were among a small number of people who showed up for the early evening shows on Wednesday.

More than 60 years

The late Joseph Mulone, Nick's father, built the theater building and opened for business in 1948.

"It was his baby, so he was always here," Mulone said. "He lived in the house behind the theater, so he took care of it."

"April Showers," a musical comedy starring Jack Carson and Ann Sothern, was the first movie to grace the theater's screen.

Over the ensuing years, the theaters grew to two, then four and then six screens.

They exhibited the exploits of cinematic heroes, villains, clowns, ghouls and lovers in films ranging from "Easy Rider," "Alfie" and "The Ten Commandments" to "Alien," "Rocky" and "The Lord of The Rings."

Paul Hess of Harrison, former editor of the Valley News Dispatch, was well acquainted with the theaters having served as the newspaper's film critic in the 1970s.

"The best thing about the theaters was the owners -- Joe and Molly Mulone," Hess recalled. "They didn't operate the theaters just to make money; they operated them because they loved the movie business. Plus the atmosphere of a local community theater was always great, and that has just been disappearing all over the country.

"You knew the owners and they knew practically everyone who came in," Hess said. "It gave you a comfortable feeling when you walked in. It was very warm."

Competition, distributors blamed

Mulone said it was "a quick decision" to close, but one that has been coming for a long time.

Movie industry economics have made it increasingly difficult for smaller independent theaters to stay in business, Mulone said.

He said the film companies who distribute the films to theaters across the country take more than 55 percent of the gross.

At the same time. Mulone who also owns the South Pike Cinemas in Buffalo Township, said theater owners face rising costs such as utilities as other business owners do, so to make a profit they have to rely on the concession business.

"When they take 55 percent of your gross, all you have left is popcorn and candy," Mulone said.

Also, he said it's harder to get first run films because the distributors tend to favor large multiple screen theater complexes, such as the 18-screen Cinemark Theaters at the nearby Pittsburgh Mills mall in Frazer.

"We tried everything," Mulone said. "We went down to $6 for adults and $4 for children and senior citizens."

He said he film companies forced him increase prices to $7 because the theater was not making enough money per customer to show first-run movies.

"It was getting tougher and tougher to get a first-run product but, because we were in business for so long and because we had South Pike we were able to get certain prints," Mulone said. "There were a lot of pictures we couldn't get."

He cited the opening of the theaters at the mall as a factor for the decline in Cheswick's business.

"There's not enough people in this area to support all these theaters," he said.

Struggling economy hurt, too

Hess agreed. He also said that the costs of going to theaters to see movies has become too expensive for a lot of people, especially in the current poor economy.

"It's cheaper to rent a movie for a family for four or pay $5 to watch an on-demand movie on cable TV than to go out to a theater to see a movie," Hess said."That is the one advantage left for the theaters — seeing a movie on a large screen."

"People always want to get out of the house and they want that experience of going into a movie theater," Mulone said. "I think there will always be movie theaters, but there won't be as many theaters. There will be less locations and more screens."

Mulone said he likely will lease the theater property as he did with the theaters across the street, which now house a hardware store.

He said the eight employees at Cheswick have been offered jobs at the South Pike Cinemas.

Staff writer Michael Aubele contributed to this report.

Additional Information:

Cheswick's theaters

The Cheswick Theatre has been a mainstay in entertaining Alle-Kiski Valley residents through six decades. Here is a brief timeline of how the theaters evolved:

• 1948: Joseph Mulone opens the Cheswick Theatre, a movie house with one screen along the north side of Pittsburgh Street.

• 1966: Mulone adds a second screen, making the Cheswick Theatre the first twin-screen theater in the Pittsburgh area.

• 1977: The theaters expand to four screens with the construction of another building across the street.

• 1998: Nick Mulone, who took over ownership of the theaters from his father, begins work on renovating the original theaters on the north side of the street. The $400,000 renovation includes dividing one of the two 825-seat theaters into three smaller screening rooms and installation of sloped, stadium-style seating and Dolby sound systems.

• 2001: More parking is added along with a private party room to the same building.

• 2003: The concession stand is remodeled to accommodate more customers.

• 2007: Citing a glut of movie screens with the advent of the Pittsburgh Mills mall theaters, Mulone closes the two screens on the south side of Pittsburgh Street in March and announces that the building will be leased for office or commercial space.

• 2007: Mulone announces that the remaining Cheswick Theatres will offer second-run movies for only a $2 admission. The endeavor lasts only a few weeks before the theaters return to first-run movies at an increased admission.

• 2009: Mulone announces the closing of the theaters along the north side of the street, 61 years after the first theater opened.

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