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A Historic Opportunity

The Point has printed a few articles about plans for Point Park’s new Pittsburgh Playhouse [that will move from Oakland] to be built in Downtown Pittsburgh. In many ways, this move will represent a return to the historic theater district of the city. At one time, in the early 20th century, there were more than 20 theaters in Downtown Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh was a natural stop for touring productions, as they moved through the city by railroad, so the offerings were frequent and excellent. The venues for these shows ranged from simple lecture-type halls, located on the upper floors of Pittsburgh buildings, to more elaborate theaters. There were also numerous vaudeville halls that transitioned into vaudeville/movie venues, and then later showed movies alone. There were also movie palaces, such as the performance spaces that are now home to Heinz Hall (the former Loews Penn Theater) and the Benedum Center (the former Stanley Theater).

The Downtown Pittsburgh neighborhood is very rich in theater lore. For example, a building on Liberty Avenue had a private screening room for a movie distributor.  The Warner Theatre had a movie screen that was 130 feet long and formed an arc that had three projectors throwing the image, almost like a horizontal IMAX. I recall seeing the movie The Deer Hunter from the third row; now that was an experience. The Alvin Theatre (now a fitness center) had the roof collapse during a movie in the 1920s, but no one was killed due to the heroics of the staff. The Nixon (now demolished) opened with a car being driven to the balcony to demonstrate its safety. La Gondola used to have pictures of vaudeville stars above the bar.

In short, there are a thousand stories about Downtown Pittsburgh theaters and the city’s historic theater district. Point Park has an opportunity to revive these stories and build on this historic theater tradition, perhaps in the pages of your magazine.

Tom Harley
Indiana, Pa.

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