A theater revival: Small movie houses serve multiple functions
Once, long before the dawn of the multiplexes, there were movie theaters in almost every small town or city neighborhood.
They usually were pedestrian-oriented and integrated into the streetscape, providing a rare semi-public meeting place that wasn't a bar or street corner.
You can see the ghostly remnants and darkened marquees of many of these theaters along our main streets. The old Plaza Theater in Bloomfield now holds a Starbucks. The Beehive in Oakland houses cell phone and clothing stores. The Bellevue Theater has been reborn as a Dollar General.
Others simply lie vacant, like the Garden Theater on the North Side, whose sad decline into decrepitude followed the trajectory of so many urban theaters in the 1970s, by first becoming a porn theater.
Now, "movie theater" typically refers to mega-multiplexes more easily reached by car than on foot.
Yet, as with so many things, the old ways persist in Pittsburgh, although sometimes it takes new ideas and a little imagination to keep them going. The old-fashioned, single-screen neighborhood movie house seems to be undergoing a slow, but noticeable comeback, combining new uses with the old. The first dedicated movie house -- or "nickelodeon" -- in the world opened on Smithfield Street, Downtown, in 1905. Chances are, there's still one open somewhere near you.
A new start in Dormont
The latest revival is the Hollywood Theater, tucked away in Dormont's Potomac Avenue business district. It opened as a theater in 1933. It has a balcony, a lobby with concessions and Dolby digital and 35 mm projectors.
"(Carnegie Mellon University) did a study for us -- it actually opened in the '20s as a bowling alley," says John Maggio, Dormont borough council president, who has worked tirelessly to reopen the Hollywood. "(Theaters) are good for the community. They attract new businesses, homeowners. They're a good place for seniors to walk to see a movie."
The Hollywood reopened again last month after several failed attempts -- most recently by the Indiana-based nonprofit Motion Picture Heritage. After $300,000 in renovations, the theater looks beautiful, with its balcony and Art Deco marquee as physical links to the moviegoing habits of an earlier age.
The for-profit Motion Picture Heritage had a special niche: B-movies, horror, science fiction and other low-brow classics. But poor promotion, brutal snowstorms and a lineup of poor-quality digital prints were some of the reasons cited when it closed in May 2010.
"We put a nonprofit together after it closed," Maggio says. "I think we're doing it right this time. The group from the Midwest (Motion Picture Heritage) had a love of movies, but didn't know the area."
The plan is to look at it as a movie theater first, but a community hub and performance space a close second. It will screen a mix of classics and independent films -- including unique events like the 48-hour Film Project for local filmmakers (July 14 and 15) -- instead of first-run fare. Other uses might include live performances, art shows, music and community meetings.
"This time, it's a nonprofit -- a group that's invested in the community, and a love of movies," Maggio says. "I think with a single-screen theater, the best chance to succeed is as a nonprofit. You don't have that burden of making 'X' amount of dollars on top of breaking even. It makes you open for grants and donations."
Not far away in Mt. Lebanon is another theater in an even more prominent spot, slowly working toward a rebirth.
The Denis Theatre on Washington Road closed in 2004. A coalition of neighborhood residents is raising funds to re-open it. Eventually, they hope to have three full-size screens, and plan to have the first one going by 2012.
"Our business plan is to be a main-street community center-plus," says Jennifer Smokelin, president of the Denis Theatre Foundation's board. "The Denis Theatre will begin and end with film. The sandwich of stuff in the middle will be culture and performing arts.
"We'll have a small stage, so we won't be able to do 'Hello, Dolly!' or (host the) River City Brass, but we'll be able to do chamber music, poetry readings, small dance ensembles, folk ensembles," Smokelin says. "We'll have some visual arts as well. As a community cultural center, we're able to diversify our business plan, to bring in income streams from different areas."
So far, $900,000 has been raised, with $2.5 million as a goal for the first phase. Donations can be made at www.denistheatre.org.
"The balance came mostly from individuals -- everything from sticky pennies that little kids would put in the cans to very sizable checks from people throughout the South Hills," Smokelin says.
The Oaks example
The most successful local revival of a classic single-screen neighborhood theater is in Oakmont, where The Oaks Theater has long anchored the community's main business district. It's also the only for-profit, single-screen theater in town.
A previous manager, Jared Earley, had turned The Oaks into a destination for foreign, independent and art cinema. After he left in 2006, the theater reverted to more mainstream fare, competing with the multiplexes. Lately, under the direction of manager Randy Collins, The Oaks has again focused more on ambitious, offbeat programming.
"The biggest thing in terms of programming is flexibility," Collins says. "By not doing first-run movies, I don't have to hold a movie for three or four weeks. I can show multiple movies a week. The (major movie) studios know those first three or four weeks are when they make 95 percent of their money at the box office, so they insist that you hold those films for that long.
"That's why I think it's important for theaters like us to say, 'Forget it. We don't like your terms. That doesn't work for us.' "
It's the distinctive programming that lures patrons in, and not just their neighbors in Oakmont. The Oaks screens the National Theatre Live series, which shows top theatrical productions like "The Cherry Orchard" on the big screen in high definition and surround sound. Other series bring some of the top operas and ballets in the world, like the Bolshoi Ballet, to Oakmont.
The Oaks' flexibility allows it to jump on opportunities that present themselves, like the series of eight new British films called "From Britain with Love" going on now.
Other long-running series include the Moonlit Matinees, featuring late-night screenings of cult classics on Friday and Saturday nights, and the Cine Brunch on Saturdays, catered by the nearby Oakmont Bakery.
"One of the owners (Marc Serrao) of Oakmont Bakery is one of three owners of The Oaks Theater," Collins says. "He's actually making hot food as well. It's amazing."
Profit vs. nonprofit
Despite The Oaks, the nonprofit model seems to hold the most promise for these small neighborhood theaters.
Until recently, Squirrel Hill had two small, for-profit neighborhood theaters -- long ago broken into several irregularly shaped screening rooms -- that showed a mix of first-run and more ambitious art-house fare. Only the four-screen Manor on Murray Avenue remains.
On the nonprofit side, the city's three dedicated art theaters -- Harris Theater, Regent Square Theater, Melwood Screening Room -- are run by Pittsburgh Filmmakers as a successful appendage to their film school and media-arts center.
Outside the city, an interesting example is the Strand Theater in Zelienople, first opened in 1914 as a theater and fruit market. The Strand Theater Initiative began in 2001 to save the long-vacant structure.
"It was originally a silent-film house and had vaudeville-style live shows," Strand Theater executive director Ron Carter says. "We've actually taken it back to its original purpose as a multipurpose cultural center. We have a small apron stage, but we do a lot of classic film programming. We do a lot of musical concerts, some full live productions, and some local talent."
The costs of small-theater renovation and operation require long-term planning and support from the community.
"We bought the building in 2002," Carter says. "It ended up being about $2.4 million and two years to complete the renovations. We literally gutted the place and started over again. We rotated the seating 90 degrees -- even though it was a small space, it still had this very long, cavernous look to it.
"We have two more phases of construction planned if we get $5 million to $6 million. We own the building next door. We want to build a stage house, for full, live theatrical programs and a dressing room. Stage 3 is a two-level parking deck and a multipurpose center, black-box theater, dance and acting schools. When it's all said and done, it will be a true cultural center that can have a Broadway show in the theater proper and a classic film or a recital of some kind in the multipurpose center."
The old-fashioned, single-screen neighborhood movie house seems to be undergoing a slow, but noticeable comeback.
Where: 1449 Potomac Ave., Dormont
Films/events this week: 'Papillion,' 2 and 7 p.m. today
'Troll Hunter,' Norwegian cinema verite thriller, 7 p.m. Wednesday and 9:30 p.m. Thursday
'Waiting for Superman,' 7 p.m. Wednesday
'Sweeney Todd' (2007), 7 p.m. Thursday
Admission: $7; $5 for seniors and children under 12
The Oaks Theater
Where: 310 Allegheny River Blvd., Oakmont
Films/events this week: 'The Princess of Montpensier,' showing daily
'A Place in the Sun,' 2 p.m. Sunday
From Britain with Love series: 'NEDS,' 8 p.m. today and Tuesday; 'A Boy Called Dad,' 8 p.m. Monday and Wednesday
Moonlit Matinee series: 'Top Gun,' 10 p.m. Friday and midnight Saturday
Ballet in Cinema: 'Swan Lake' by Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, 2 p.m. today and 7 p.m. Thursday
Admission: Regular films, $6 before 6 p.m. and $8 after; $6 for seniors and youth 17 and under. Ballet in Cinema is $15; $12 for students and youth
Details: 412-828-6311; website
Where: 119 N. Main St., Zelienople
Films/events this week: 'Back to the Future,' 4 p.m. today
'Forrest Gump,' 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. July 2
Admission: $5; $4 for seniors
Details: 724-742-0400; website