Long-awaited theater set to open in Sewickley
It's a story written for the big screen. And the Sewickley Valley has a front row seat.
More than five years after a grassroots group of community members came together to brainstorm a plan to bring a movie theater to Sewickley, The Tull Family Theater is set to open next week.
The theater, on Walnut Street in Sewickley's business district, will open to the public Feb. 17 and will premiere with “La La Land,” which received a record-tying 14 Oscars nominations; “The Eagle Huntress”; and “Fences.”
It's the first movie theater in Sewickley in more than 30 years.
Previously named the Vanguard Theater, the $4 million project was named for Thomas and Alba Tull. The Tulls sponsored the naming rights with a $500,000 donation, the group announced last March.
Thomas Tull is a partial Steelers owner and founding chairman of Legendary Pictures, which produced “Dark Knight” trilogy and “Jurassic World.” Under the name Three Rivers Trust, Tull purchased a century-old stone Edgeworth home in November 2015. He plans to build a home for his family there.
The two-screen movie theater boasts two screening rooms — one with 169 seats, and the 77-seat Huntington Bank Room.
Along with two movie screens, the theater has a gathering space known as the Esmark and Bouchard Family Community Room, sponsored by Esmark CEO and Sewickley resident Jim Bouchard, who donated $150,000.
That space will serve as a multipurpose room and host events such as small-scale live performances, speaking engagements or private rentals for birthdays or weddings.
As a founding member of the nonprofit group's board, Janis Pereira has helped to oversee construction of the project.
“The best part about it for me is not just that the building is completed, but it's really looking forward to the people from Sewickley … and the whole region to come in and start taking part in enjoying the movies … and the programs we have planned,” Pereira said.
“I feel a lot of pride because we started with an idea of just a movie theater with a screen, and we've grown so much.
“It's nice to have all of the cinematic arts available to everybody. There are so many benefits from that. You get a lot of civic pride, there's a lot of economic development, there's a social cohesion, there's a greater civic engagement.”
Board members in 2011 initially planned to open within a year, but pushed back opening dates as they solidified a plan. Other issues relating to an underground stream also delayed the project.
Like Pereira, Brian Duggan is a founding member and serves as board president.
“It's been a five year journey,” Duggan said. “Most of the arthouse theaters are within the City of Pittsburgh. We have cultural venues outside of the city, but not enough cinemas. We decided to change that.
“We started fundraising within the local community, and the response was generous and widespread, and that confirmed to us that there was demand for a cinema.”
Having an independent theater for the northwestern portion of the Pittsburgh area was important, Duggan said.
“I understood firsthand the challenges families outside of the city have in going to a cinema,” he said, adding that there are no independent theaters within a short drive. “And for families with limited means, living on the edge of Allegheny and Beaver counties, the options were even more limited.”
Along with a planned schedule of four afternoon and four evening shows most days, plus specials like Classic Tuesdays and family events, theater leaders are “pursuing quality programming that really serves the region,” Executive Director Carolina Beyers said.
Duggan said the work of Beyers has been a driving success for the project.
“The best thing we ever did was hire Carolina as our executive director, who's championed this with all of our hands on input. It's been great to have her drive things,” he said.
“The combination of five years of work — to see it come to fruition has been very, very rewarding to see this open up. It's a milestone that the work is finished, but in other ways the work is just beginning.”
Plans for programming are evolving, but Beyers said staff are focused on finding sponsorships for a range of opportunities including topic-driven outreach.
The theater group has formed partnerships with some groups including the Aliquippa-based Church in the Round's Boys 2 Men program, Laughlin Children's Center and Mooncrest Neighborhood Programs.
Beyers said the response from others within cultural organizations across the region has been great.
“People are surprised in how many people will benefit from this,” she said. “A lot of people from the city might not have a need to drive to Beaver County. When I talk about the theater and the communities that don't have access to an independent cinema, people are surprised.”