Vision for Mt. Lebanon theater includes center for film, music, lectures, art

Matthew Santoni
| Wednesday, June 25, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Preservationists envision more than just movies at the former Denis Theatre in Mt. Lebanon.

The Denis Theatre Foundation is seeking a $1.5 million state grant to start work on renovating the first floor of the long-empty Washington Road movie house into a center for film, music, lectures and art, with a 200-seat movie theater/auditorium, a 100-seat auditorium, a 40-seat learning center and a gallery/reception space in the lobby.

The foundation is hosting some programming in temporary digs in order to build community interest, including a film discussion series in spaces around the municipality and, starting in the fall, a movie-focused art therapy program for senior citizens at the Mt. Lebanon Public Library.

“We want to show the community what our mission is, and how it's absolutely needed,” said M.J. Meenen, a member of the foundation's board of directors. “Everything will be tied back into the community; that's what makes us different, more special than a chain theater.”

About $2.1 million has been raised so far, though some went toward buying the building, clearing it of furniture and equipment, and designing its renovation.

“There's a lot of cosmetic (work) and minor things,” said Jack Doyle, a mechanical engineer on the foundation's facilities committee. “The structure is in good shape.”

In the foundation's vision, one of the Denis' two ground-floor theaters will be converted into its main theater for first-run independent films. The other will be divided into a smaller theater for other movies, lectures or special programs and a learning center for classes, discussion groups or small event rentals. The lobby will have ticket sales, concessions and an art gallery for receptions, with large windows looking out on the Washington Road business district.

“I envision this space with a glass wall so people can walk by and see a very inviting space, see that it's an art gallery,” said Betty Jo Hirschfield Louik, a board member, during a tour of the empty building this week. Two theater spaces on the second floor will be left unused for now.

The foundation's offices and apartment buildings' community rooms around Mt. Lebanon host “Reel to Real” discussions about eight times a year, where film buffs watch a movie and discuss it. Those eventually will move to screenings in the main theater, with discussions and snacks in the learning center,

In September, the foundation will team with Woburn, Mass.-based ARTZ Artists for Alzheimer's, a program that uses art to engage with people who have dementia or Alzheimer's.

Eventually, the movie program will combine short films and movie clips in the small theater with discussions in the learning center and receptions and socializing in the lobby. But this year, and until the theater is renovated, the program will be at the Mt. Lebanon library.

“It's a wonderful partnership and it's great to support something that will enhance the community in that way,” library director Cynthia Richey said.

Sean Caulfield, a cofounder of the ARTZ program, said it was designed to be inclusionary, bringing together people with memory loss with volunteers and family members to watch movie clips and discuss them.

Caulfield said the clips won't just be from old movies, but from a range of movies that share common themes.

“What works are the stories that are hard-wired, almost archetypes, so people don't need to see the whole two hours,” he said.

Richey said adding gallery space in the Denis will ease a scheduling crunch at the library's two galleries. There is a waiting list of about 18 months for artists to put works on display for a month at the library.

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or

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