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Owner of shuttered theater hopes it will remain moviehouse

Friday, March 5, 2010

The search is on for a theater operator willing to start the projectors rolling again at the just-closed Squirrel Hill Theater.

Equity Real Estate of Squirrel Hill said Thursday it's contacting Pittsburgh-area theater owners and developers, along with national chains, to gauge interest in continuing the Forward Avenue building's seven-decade identity as a neighborhood entertainment venue.

"We are pursuing efforts to attract another movie theater there," real estate agent David G. Tkacik said. Equity represents the theater's owner, Alderson-Forward Properties LLC, a group of local and national investors.

The Squirrel Hill Theater closed Wednesday. Operator Richard Stern said his firm, Stern Enterprises, couldn't continue to absorb losses there but will continue to run the profitable Manor Theater nearby on Murray Avenue.

Equity President Jerry Speer said while other uses will be considered, the owners' first choice for a new tenant would be another theater.

Pittsburgh Filmmakers is one possibility. The organization wouldn't add the Squirrel Hill as a fourth theater, with its Harris Theater, Downtown; Regent Square Theater in Edgewood and Melwood Screening Room in Oakland, Executive Director Charlie Humphrey said.

But Pittsburgh Filmmakers might propose using the Forward Avenue theater for special events, Humphrey added, noting, "There's plenty of programming out there."

Squirrel Hill community leaders and operators of other independent movie houses point to the Squirrel Hill's lack of off-street parking, and competition from the modern, 22-screen AMC Loews Waterfront theater two miles away as reasons to doubt the neighborhood theater can reopen.

Ray Baum, president of the nonprofit Squirrel Hill Coalition, would welcome another theater, but said a lack of investment in the building sealed its fate years ago. He said he once saw a ceiling tile fall on another patron's head during a movie.

Randy Collins manages The Oaks Theater in Oakmont but lives in Squirrel Hill. "It's a neighborhood movie theater. They are increasingly rare, and I like that experience of being able to walk there," he said of the venue.

Still, major work would be needed to upgrade the facility's sound and picture quality to what moviegoers expect, Collins said.

The restored Hollywood Theater in Dormont reopened last year after Motion Picture Heritage Corp. of Franklin, Ind., agreed to sublease it from the Bradley Center and run it with paid and volunteer help.

Even with two borough parking lots nearby, "It's a struggle," said Bill Dever, a manager with the company, which also makes films and runs a drive-in theater in Indiana.

The Hollywood runs a variety of classic and independent movies and stage events, and sets itself apart by allowing patrons to bring their own wine, for example, and order food.

"It's important that film lovers cling to these last independent theaters and see what a movie should look like," Dever said. "We want 'Casablanca' to be seen as it was intended to be. A big house makes the film bigger."

The SouthSide Works Cinemas does well with its mix of mainstream and independent films, said Dave Huffman of operator Cleveland and Pittsburgh Cinemas, and it helps to be in the middle of a destination shopping complex.

Still, "It's definitely a tough business, and it's a challenge these days with Netflix and online streaming" and new releases that are available earlier than ever, Huffman said. Nationwide, the total number of indoor movie theaters has dropped by 21 percent in the past decade, to 5,561 last year, according to the National Association of Theater Owners.

Additional Information:

Lights out

Some facts about the Squirrel Hill Theater:

What: Five-screen multiplex with 841 seats

Where: Forward Avenue, off Murray Avenue

History: In operation for about 70 years before it closed Wednesday

Final screenings: 'An Education,' 'Up In The Air,' 'A Serious Man' and 'The Hurt Locker' • all best picture nominees for this year's Oscars., other research



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