12 days until the Theatre Historical Society of America visits the home of the world’s first Nickelodeon — Pittsburgh, PA — for 2014′s Conclave Theatre Tour. Each day will take you to architecturally significant movie theatres, civic auditoriums, vaudeville houses, or Carnegie Libraries — it’s going to be a great trip, and we can’t wait to share it with you.
101 Sixth Street
OPENED: October 31, 1904
ARCHITECT: Dodge & Morrison
CAPACITY: 2,000 (original) 1,767 (current)
Originally built in 1903 as the Gayety Theater, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust purchased this 1,300-seat venue in 1988. Then called the Fulton Theater, The Trust renovated and reopened the venue in 1991. The theater was renamed the Byham Theater in 1995, in recognition of a gift from William C. and Carolyn M. Byham. Today, the Byham Theater is home to a wide variety of performing arts, including dance, music, theater, film, and family-friendly events held throughout the year.
The Gayety ran for many years as one of the country’s foremost stage and vaudeville houses, with appearances from such stars as Ethel Barymore, Gertrude Lawrence, and Helen Hayes. The venue boasted pressed copper cherubs painted with a bronze patina, imitation gold leaf, stained glass windows, plaster columns, and wainscot of scagolia, an Italian faux marble technique. The entry vestibule showcases the original mosaic tile floor and the large original lighting fixtures are artifacts from the advent of electrical lighting. Backstage, the theater was one of the remaining few to use sandbags and hemp ropes to work the scenery rigging until 1999 when a modern rigging system was installed. In the 1930s, the theater was renamed the Fulton and became a full time movie theater.
Following the first of four planned phases of renovation, the Fulton was reopened in May 1991 and the old lighted Fulton marquee was restored by the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg. The second phase of renovations brought new restrooms, box office, marquee, an elevator, lobby improvements, and façade changes. In 1997, the Cherub Lobby was restored to its original splendor. The third phase of renovation in 1999 updated the theater rigging system, enlarged the orchestra pit, and provided new HVAC for the entire building. As funding becomes available, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust continues to enhance the Byham Theater to address improvements in theater technology.
In 1993, The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust selected the renowned American muralist Richard Haas as the designer of the Haas Mural, which pays homage to Pittsburgh’s steel industry. Richard Haas is best known for architectural murals and his use of the Trompe l’oeil style— an art technique involving extremely realistic imagery in order to create the optical illusion that the depicted objects appear in three-dimensions, instead of actually being a two-dimensional painting. The Haas Mural is painted on the Fort Duquesne Boulevard façade of the Byham Theater. The mural integrates the Byham Theater’s doors and windows to create a visual experience. In a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette interview, Mr. Haas called the mural “one of the most complicated façades I’ve done.”
History and images courtesy Pittsburgh Cultural Trust for the 2014 Conclave Theatre Tour. Images © Kevin Cooke.