Manor Theatre pairs old charm, with modern touches
Sitting in a darkened theater with a bunch of strangers enjoying a movie is one of those unifying experiences that people across the world have in common. In some essential ways, it hasn't changed much since the 1920s.
Yet, in some ways, the movie-theater business is notoriously fickle. Things that were state of the art a few decades ago -- remember the long, cavernous theaters at the now-closed Showcase West in Robinson -- are functionally obsolete.
So, it's somewhat remarkable that a little neighborhood theater in Squirrel Hill, the Manor Theatre, is celebrating 90 years of screenings, going back to the silent-film era.
In conjunction with its 90th anniversary, the Manor has just completed an extensive remodeling, to keep it up to date and, perhaps, a little bit ahead of the curve when it comes to changes affecting the movie-theater business.
The theater is virtually unrecognizable from its early days. Where there once was one large, ornately decorated movie palace, there are four small screening rooms. That did't change, but the plan was to reconnect a bit with the theater's history.
"Part of what we're doing is bringing back the historic charm of this theater," says Alexa Stern, who owns the theater with her father, Rick Stern. "The marble flooring, the detailing, plaster ceilings, are absolutely magnificent. We uncovered this beautiful plaster medallion in the ceiling, that we will sort of frame in the lounge seating area. We're stripping a lot away to uncover the historic architectural details, and incorporate that in our design."
The food also is getting a major upgrade. Instead of just popcorn and soft drinks, visitors will be able to order items like "shoestring zucchini fries" and "pork and Napa cabbage potstickers with wasabi soy sauce."
They've also added a bar, serving craft beers, wine and specialty cocktails like "The Golden Globe" -- tequila with lemon juice, agave and champagne. Some of the wines will come from legendary movie director Francis Ford Coppola's winery in Napa Valley.
"We just wanted to enhance the entire experience of coming to the Manor," Alexa Stern says. "My father is involved in the restaurant business. It seemed to make sense to us. We wanted to capitalize on the dinner-and-a-movie date-night experience."
The Stern family's restaurant interests include Willow in Ohio Township, Spoon in East Liberty and BrGr in East Liberty and Cranberry.
There will be major changes onscreen.
"We're converting from 35-millimeter film to digital projection," Stern says. "This is a trend you're seeing all around the country. We've put Sony 4K digital projectors in our four auditoriums. The sound and visual quality is breathtaking -- it's absolutely unreal. We actually have the best sound and picture quality in Pittsburgh. We have 3-D capability in one of our theaters, something we didn't have previously."
The distribution of films to theaters has been completely transformed by this technology. There's no more waiting for giant, heavy film canisters to arrive just in time for the first screening.
"They send you these files (films) electronically," Stern says, "and you, basically, download them on a main server. The film companies are certainly saving millions of dollars on shipping."
"Basically, the industry is converting overall to digital projection," explains Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the National Association of Theater Owners. "It's cheaper for the studios to distribute. For movie theaters and patrons, one of the advantages is that digital does not degrade over time the way film does. If you see it three weeks in, it will look the same as opening night.
"It also opens up possibilities to theaters -- you can show anything that can be shown digitally. Live opera. Sporting events. One-off indie films. Film festivals."
Of course, this is a major investment from the Manor's standpoint. Stern says it costs about $250,000 -- and the projectors are being leased, not bought outright. This gives them the ability to upgrade when technology improves.
"The film companies are finding a way to kick back some of the savings to us," Stern says. "We entered into a VPF agreement (Virtual Print Fee), where when we play a film -- because we're investing a lot of money in digital -- they pay us a VPF."
Perhaps, most importantly to the average filmgoer, the seating has been upgraded.
"In each of the auditoriums, we've installed all-leather Greystone seating rockers," Stern says. "Very, very comfortable seats. Taller than the previous ones. Greystone is a Ford Motor Co. spinoff. It's the same seat as in a Lincoln Town car -- plush, ergonomic."
One thing that won't change about the Manor, though, is the movie selection.
"We're going to be sticking to the kind of programming we've been doing for years," Stern says. "That's part of who the Manor is. We'll be adding a 3-D movie here or there. But we're going to stay true the independent, art, foreign films, and then, some mainstream."
The Stern family also owned the nearby Squirrel Hill Theater, on Forward Avenue, which closed several years ago. There are no plans for the space.