Roxian returns as entertainment hub in McKees Rocks
On a warm, sunny spring day, three guys who grew up in McKees Rocks returned to the place where they enjoyed hours upon hours of entertainment.
“Back then (the early 50s) they had movie stars who traveled the country and showed up wherever their movies were playing and I saw Boris Karloff live on stage,” said Bob Karaman, 77, who still lives in McKees Rocks. “It cost 17 cents to see a movie and 10 cents for the best popcorn in the area. We saw a lot of Roy Rogers movies here.”
Carl Gendle, 81, who stood with his younger brother, Glenn, recalled helping his father tar the roof of the Roxian Theatre in the early 50s.
“The only thing I got of value out of the deal was that they let me in the movie for free,” Gendle said. “It was a Gary Cooper movie with Ruth Roman.”
Now that the Roxian is up and running again, as a live music venue rather than a movie palace, the old friends tell Roxian talent buyer Scott Forsyth that they would love to see some doo-wop groups. Forsyth responds that they are open to all genres of music.
Following years of disrepair after it closed in 2003, a $9 million renovation was recently completed.
Earlier this month, the Roxian reopened as a state-of-the-art 21st century facility that retains much of the charm of its heyday, dating back to its original opening in 1929 as a vaudeville Theatre.
John Pergal, who owns the Thunderbird Café in Lawrenceville, was the man who took on this daunting project. He and his partners invested $2 million of their own money into the task of bringing the Roxian back to life.
“It was really neglected, the roof was leaking and pigeons were living in here and it hadn’t been touched since the 90s,” said Pergal. “There was a lot remediation work done in here to where we could actually restore it. But the structure was solid, it was a really well-built building. You couldn’t build something like this today. It would just cost too much. So, we really tried to keep the character of this place.”
The structure of the Roxian balcony is identical to what it was in 1929, but now has new railings and 365 new seats. The original vaulted ceiling was kept intact after an ugly drop ceiling was removed and the molding and design elements above the proscenium stage were cleaned and painted.
The old projector room has been removed and the area has been turned into a bar with a wide selection of craft beers. The bars and the bathrooms are big enough to insure that no one has to wait long to get a drink or use the restroom.
Of course, none of this would mean much if the building didn’t have outstanding acoustics. So far, Pergel said the sound at the early shows has been getting good reviews. But they still have to tweak it.
“They started out in Vaudeville at this Theatre, before they had big PA systems, so they made the rooms lively, not quite as lively as a church. We just need to take some of that liveliness and stop a little bit of the reflection and it will be perfect,” said Pergal.
He said the sight lines are incredible.
“There are really no obstructed views at all the way it’s laid out,” Pergal said. “A lot of the older Theatres are long and narrow. This one is short and wide and it lends itself to being closer to the stage.”
With a capacity of 1,470, most of it standing room on the first floor, the venue fills a gap in the concert scene, Forsyth said.
“Pittsburgh’s got a pretty good number of venues, at this capacity, that are fully seated. But those places all have fixed seats,” he said. “So, the transition for a band who plays the Thunderbird and outgrows the Thunderbird and goes to the Rex, and outgrows the Rex and goes to Mr. Smalls and then outgrows Mr. Smalls, there was nowhere for that artist to go if there was a need to play an open floor venue. Now there is. It sort of fills that gap between Mr. Smalls and Stage AE.”
The grand reopening featured British funk band the New Mastersounds and upcoming shows will have the likes of Thundercat on May 29 and Toots and the Maytals on June 4. In July, Bruce Hornsby takes the stage followed a few days later by the Psychedelic Furs.
Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected].