Next week 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.
If you’re not joining us, make sure to check out our daily recaps here on the blog. You don’t have to be with us to see inside of Pittsburgh’s theatres!
Find out more about one of our stops, the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty, PA.
KELLY STRAYHORN THEATER
5941 Penn Ave
OPENED: October 31, 1914
ARCHITECT: Harry S. Bair
CAPACITY: 1,100 (original) 350 (current)
To enter the theater is to be in the presence of two creative and passionate spirits who, with their talent, tenacity, and love of their craft, provide inspiration for us today: famed dancer and Hollywood movie legend Gene Kelly, born and raised in East Liberty, and Homewood-bred jazz composer Billy Strayhorn. Their spirits abound in the young East End artists of today.
As the last of nine theaters from the 1950s heyday of East Liberty, the Kelly Strayhorn Theater has become part of the transformation of East Liberty into an extraordinary arts and entertainment destination.
In 1914, the Regent Theatre, a state-of-the-art 1,100-seat photoplay house, began screening America’s favorite silent films. Designed by architect Harry S. Bair, The Regent featured a grand theater organ that provided live accompaniment to silent films. East End residents could catch Mary Pickford or Douglas Fairbanks at the Regent, and enjoy music, more films, and live performances at the many other theaters in the neighborhood, including the Camera-Phone, Enright, Harris Family Theatre, Liberty, Sheridan, and Triangle.
Over the decades, the Regent had its ups and downs, and was dark for long periods of time. The first reopening was held on July 18, 1965 following a $175,000 renovation under Associated Theaters, a group led by Ernest Stern who also owned the Encore, Fulton (now the Byham), Gateway, and Forum theaters in Pittsburgh. At this point the Regent’s capacity was reduced to 850 to provide increased patron comfort for the first showing of In Harm’s Way, with Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, and Patricia Neal.
In October 1979, the Regent closed again. By the 1990s, the Regent was poised for renewal, as was its East Liberty neighborhood. Pittsburgh’s downtown cultural district was underway, but Pittsburgh needed another mid-sized venue to welcome small arts groups and community programs. The arts community gathered for a sneak peek fundraiser to support the possibilities, including a gallery of local stars provided by the East Liberty Chamber of Commerce.
In 2000, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the Regent Theatre would have a new name in honor of Pittsburgh greats Gene Kelly and Billy Strayhorn. In 2003, the New Pittsburgh Courier reported that audiences were again “lining up on Penn Avenue.”
By 2009–2010, the Kelly Strayhorn was in use more than three-quarters of the possible performance and rehearsals days as young performers, dancers, filmmakers, actors, musicians, community organizations, and audiences participate in the ongoing renaissance of East Liberty’s performing arts center. §
History and images courtesy Kelly Strayhorn Theater, kelly-strayhorn.org.