Tull theater named Sewickley Herald's Citizen of the Year
What began more than five years ago as a dream for families to watch movies on the big screen within the community has become a cultural, educational and entertaining venue for people within and beyond the Sewickley Valley.
The story of how The Tull Family Theater came to be could become a great novel. More fittingly, however, the story of the nonprofit group could light up a movie screen.
“It's awesome for the community. What we envisioned came to life,” said Brian Duggan, president and one of the founding members of the board of directors of The Tull Family Theater, which has been named the Sewickley Herald's Citizen of the Year for the newspaper's 41st annual Sewickley Herald Man, Woman & Citizen of the Year honor celebrating people and organizations whose passion drives community spirit and togetherness. “Everybody who wants to go see a movie and get an ice cream or go to dinner and a movie, that option now exists in Sewickley — in addition to all of our other cultural offerings.”
The theater officially opened in February after first being announced publicly as an idea in late 2011. An all-volunteer board of directors made up of Sewickley Valley residents and leaders has directed this live-action script along the way.
The two-screen theater's story actually begins about 30 years ago when a movie theater in Sewickley's business district closed. As large, multi-screen theaters in suburban areas grew, small movie theaters declined, forcing people to drive to the North Hills and Robinson for the latest releases.
Duggan felt the lack of a local movie theater several years ago when his family sought out movie going experiences.
“We moved here and my kid wanted to go to a movie on a Friday night and I found out that required a 30- to 45-minute drive,” said Duggan, who moved to Sewickley from New Jersey. “I started asking ‘Why isn't there a movie theater?'”
Susan Kaminski, who also is a founding board member, has served as vice president of the group and thought a theater sounded like a “really interesting project” for the community.
“As we talked more about what we wanted, it became more than just a movie theater for the community, which, in and of itself is a really good thing,” she said. “But we started talking about what it would bring to the greater community and region. It got more and more exciting as we started evolving.”
But getting a community to buy into a theater can prove difficult.
Duggan and Kaminski “went on the road,” as board treasurer Patty Jones said, and reached out directly to community members through living room speeches to seek support.
Duggan called early support a “chicken or the egg story,” noting that without private donor support, the group would have trouble seeking foundation support. But without much more than an idea, community support could prove difficult.
“We were trying to sell what we were going to do,” he said.
From 2011 through mid-2012, some 400 families pledged to support the theater. Those eventual donors were rewarded as “front row” donors and invited to a private kickoff celebration the evening before the theater's official opening day in February.
Early on, the group's nonprofit status initially was rejected because it lacked cultural explanation.
“It forced us to really do our homework on what we would offer in addition to a movie theater,” Duggan said.
A focus on educational and cultural programming includes offerings such as “Classic Tuesdays” and working with community and school groups from around the region to provide theater access to people who otherwise might not get to experience that, said Carolina Beyers, the executive director.
A low-sensory screening in March of Disney's “Beauty and the Beast” offered children and families a chance to experience a movie with brighter lights, open doors and in a comfortable setting, Beyers said.
Having to push the original design from being flush with the street due to structural issues with Hoeys Run, which runs underneath, ended up being a “blessing in disguise,” said Janis Pereira, who serves as board secretary.
The change “created a better configuration than what we started with,” Pereira said. The theater also boasts the Esmark and Bouchard Family Community Room, sponsored by Esmark CEO and Sewickley resident Jim Bouchard, who donated $150,000. The room can be used for private rentals and future offerings by the organization.
Previously named the Vanguard Theater, the $4 million project was named for Thomas and Alba Tull, who donated $500,000 toward the project in 2016. Thomas Tull is a partial Steelers owner and founding chairman of Legendary Pictures, which produced “Dark Knight” trilogy and “Jurassic World.”
The two-screen movie theater boasts two screening rooms — one with 169 seats, and the 77-seat Huntington Bank Room.
In addition to Duggan, Kaminski, Pereira and Jones, the theater's board members include Natalie Bouchard,
Douglas Florey, Tim Hadfield, Paulo Nzambi, Paul O'Neill, Seán Sebastian, Alex Simakas and Helena Vanhala — many of whom have been with the project from early on, Duggan said.
With nearly three months of business, Duggan and the others say more work remains as efforts to continue marketing to the local and greater community continues and studying viewer habits to offer quality programming.
But as a nonprofit, work continues to fundraise to keep the shows going.
We still have a decent amount of debt we took on to open the doors,” Duggan said. “That's been one of our challenges right now. But at the same time, we now have this asset that we can show off. We're not selling an idea anymore … (we're selling) an experience.”