Show’s Over: Ex-Theaters, Part 1 – Mourning the Recently Departed

former Plaza Theatre in Pittsburgh, PA

Plaza Theatre [now Starbucks Coffee] (1917-1998), Bloomfield

For years–ten of them, to be precise–the scene on West Liberty Avenue was unchanged. There, as the street rises just past Dormont’s little downtown business district, was a true last-of-its-kind (for Pittsburgh, at least) cast in the amber of its final waking moment. The old Cinema 4 (neé Harris/South Hills Theatre) was a classic American neighborhood movie house. Built in 1927 to seat 1200 and later sectioned into four smaller screening rooms, the theater–when it was still open–had enough old glamour, oddball kitsch, and weird juju to make any goofy second-run feature a fun experience.

Those opportunities ran out abruptly when the theater closed forever in 2001. For the following decade, Cinema 4’s giant, façade-spanning marquee pathetically clung to the plastic letters advertising its final program: Morgan Freeman in  Along Came a Spider, the drug-dealing/using drama Blow, and, permanently etched in this blogger’s brain, Paul Hogan gettin’ it done one last time in Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles[1]. [Side note: will America ever understand what a real knife looks like?!?] Alas, no departing staff ever bothered to update the marquee with a final “Closed. Thanks for 74 great years.” message.

former Cinema 4 movie theater, Dormont, PA

Cinema 4, sometime in the oughts, Dormont (1927-2001; demolished 2010) [photo: cinematreasures.org]

Though the theater stayed dark for all that time, somehow it always felt like it would be return to life. The building was too impressive, too unique, too important to let go. Those giant multi-story glass windows! The gleaming chrome–likely added in the ’50s or ’60s–reflecting along the sidewalk entrance! The big, reach-out-over-the-street neon marquee! Seven decades of South Hillsian memories, popcorn debris, garish paint jobs, and sticky floors.

But…you already know where this is going. In 2010, Dormont felt it needed a fancy new drug store more than a derelict movie house that had sat empty for the last decade. Cinema 4 was razed and West Liberty Avenue got a brand new CVS franchise with plenty of surface-level parking. Not only won’t you be able to see the latest Crocodile Dundee for a dollar, but the borough lost another local business at the same time–CVS ultimately made it impossible for Your Hometown Pharmacy (just down the hill) to compete and now they’re gone too. Sigh.

wooden ornament of apothecary mortar and pestle, Dormont, PA

Ghost apothecary. All that’s left of Your Hometown Pharmacy, Dormont

In the mid-1990s, greater Pittsburgh was awash with bargain movies. I know this very very well. As a new transplant to the city with neither television nor friends [don’t worry–I would pay dearly for both, later] this movie nut would go out three or four nights a week to feast on the unbelievable buffet of discount/second-run movies operating in the glorious cinematic salad days that ended way too early. I’d go see everything–some Wesley Snipes shoot-’em-up, dumb rom-coms, The Spice Girls movie. To this day, I’ll stand by the philosophy that any picture is a worth a buck on a the big screen–but try finding a movie that cheap any more!

Aside from the Cinema 4, Dormont also had the Hollywood (which is still sort-of operating?). There was the two-screen Bellevue Theatre (now a Family Dollar), four or five screens out in Cheswick (since demolished), and a similar number in a Penn Hills strip mall (amazingly still open and still half-price!). There was one obscure little theater in Whitehall or Brentwood that I only made it to a couple times (current status: unknown) and there were the big bargains of suburban sprawl: Northway Mall’s Super Saver Cinemas 8 with its sci-fi/spaceship looking gangways (closed 2007) and the completely generic $1.50 monster multiplex at Century III Mall (closed for a while, then reopened and rebranded as Century Square Luxury Cinemas).

Family Dollar store with the marquee of the former Bellevue Theatre, Bellevue, PA

Bellevue Theatre [now Family Dollar] (1920s-2002), Bellevue

The most painful loss was The Plaza–mainly because it was just so close to where I was living. Bloomfield’s little $2.00 second-run house was evidently a totally charming single-screen, 500-seat neighborhood theater when it opened in 1917. It went through a series of ups and downs including a substantial closure during the 1970s and eventual re-opening and reconfiguration as a two-screen bargain theater.

The layout was nuts. Typically when an old theater gets subdivided, they either figure out a way to cut the space down the middle or the balcony becomes one theater and the ground floor the other. For The Plaza, some genius came up with the idea to make one theater larger than the other using a bizarre L-shape that necessitated projecting the film from such a severe angle the screen was a perpetual trapezoid with only about half the frame in focus. A substantial portion of the seats couldn’t actually see the left hand side of the screen.

ornate stone building in Pittsburgh, PA

King’s Court/Beehive [now Noodles & Company/T-Mobile] (1965-1990s), Oakland [2]

When you start digging, it’s a history that will break your heart. It’s astounding how many nickelodeons, dance halls, opera houses, and movie palaces Pittsburgh–and pretty much every other place–once had. Three or four or five different theaters on every commercial drag in every part of town. A whole lot of those buildings–like the Cinema 4–are just gone forever. But an amazing number of them survive today and they’re mostly not what you’re expecting.

former movie theater in Pittsburgh, PA

Princess Theatre/Beacon Theatre/Guild Theatre [now Friendship Circle] (1937-1979), Squirrel Hill

If the building’s owners let the marquee stand, you’ve got a pretty obvious clue to what was once there. Most visitors to Squirrel Hill have probably noticed the big sign for Friendship Circle (and for decades before that, Gullifty’s restaurant) on Murray Ave. [See photo, above.] That, and the clean, art-deco design are a dead giveaway for the building’s past life as a movie theater. The Warner Centre, downtown, has its exterior so well preserved that you’d assume it still is the grand movie palace it was built as a hundred years ago. You’d be wrong.

façade of former Warner Theatre, downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Grand Theatre/Warner Theater [now Warner Centre shops] (1918-1983), downtown

This is a big topic with a fascinating history. We went from one story about the rash of (somewhat) recently-closed movie houses to digging into all of the various places that used to be theaters and performance halls. There is plenty of documentation out there about the lovely, ornate old theaters of yore [the web site cinematreasures.org is an invaluable resource] but what really interested The Orbit were the places that have held on–not as the handful of still-operating theaters, but a building’s transformation from nickelodeon to retail space, 200-seater to neighborhood bar, community theater to taxi stand.

A space like Cinema 4 could really only serve one purpose–and that’s probably what would ultimately doom it. Others, though, were far more humble in design–baked into retail blocks with apartments or office spaces above and storefronts bookending their entranceways. These seem to have survived much better than their great single-use siblings and have the intriguing quality of hiding in plain sight, masquerading as health clubs and laundromats, juice bars and dentists offices.

marquee of former Squirrel Hill Theatre, Pittsburgh, PA

Squirrel Hill Theatre (1940-2010), Squirrel Hill [3]

There are some bright spots, too. We’d intended on including a photo of the old Denis Theatre in Mt. Lebanon, but it’s currently getting rehabbed to be a new community-run theater/art space. North Side’s Garden Theatre is undergoing similar treatment and Row House Cinema in Lawrenceville likes to claim it’s the first new, single-screen theater built in America in the last 50 years (or something like that).

We’ll get to all this as the series unspools. Until then, just like Siskel & Ebert, we’ll see you at the movies.


[1] There is no indication why only three films were listed on the marquee of the four-screen theater. Perhaps technical difficulties precipitated Cinema 4’s ultimate closing or maybe souvenir-hunters just scavenged the lowest-hanging set of removable marquee letters. We’ll probably never know.
[2] Obvious in the photograph, the old King’s Court was not originally a theater. It was built as a police station and only converted into a movie theater some time in the 1960s. As we’ll see–especially when we get into the nickelodeons–this is not an uncommon practice.
[3] Squirrel Hill Theatre, along with the Denis, were both first-run theaters, so not included in the bargain buffet discussion. At the time it closed, the rumor was that the whole block was going to be razed and redeveloped along with the Poli plot, but that hasn’t happened and there’s a For Sale sign on the theater now, so keep your fingers crossed on this one.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s