Pittsburgh area theatres/Pittsburgh, PA

Pittsburgh Tribune Review

Sunday May 9, 2010

Small movie theaters keep big dreams alive

By Michael Machosky

"I am big. It’s the pictures that got small."

When aging silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) uttered that immortal line in "Sunset Boulevard" (1950) to an incredulous young writer, she remained proudly defiant in her delusion that she was still a star, as the first Golden Age of cinema was slipping further into memory.

For some reason, that line calls to mind an odd contradiction in contemporary moviegoing — as the pictures have gotten bigger, the experience has somehow gotten smaller.

This isn’t a knock at contemporary movie budgets, though that case can be made.

Rather, it’s the size of the theaters themselves — the multiplex and its various super-sized mutations. These massive, warehouse-like monstrosities — physically separated from their communities by giant dead zones of heat-trapping, auto-centric asphalt — are simply antithetical to the nocturnal magic of the silver screen.

The giant, lushly appointed downtown movie palaces of the past (the Fulton, the Stanley, and so on) may no longer be economically viable as cinemas. But there has to be something better, however, than these massive, artless boxes out by the highway, with all the romance of a trip to the lumber section at Home Depot.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Once upon a time, there were movie theaters in just about every town and city neighborhood. They were pedestrian-friendly and integrated into the streetscape, providing a rare semi-public meeting place that isn’t the park, the bar or the street corner. They were intimate, yet dignified, spaces that ushered patrons into the twilight world of cinema, far removed from the world outside.

To be honest, the heyday of the neighborhood movie theater was long gone before I was born, so my nostalgia is largely second-hand. But not entirely. A number survive, including the Oaks Theater in Oakmont, the Regent Square Theater in Regent Square and the Manor in Squirrel Hill.

As it just so happens, these are the theaters that tend to have the most interesting, unusual and offbeat programming. They were largely locally owned, and could adjust easily to suit local tastes — or, at times, help shape them — without making a plea to corporate headquarters.

Unfortunately, the economics of small-theater operation are precarious in the best of times. Currently, we’re not in the best of times.

The Squirrel Hill Theater recently closed, and the Hollywood Theater in Dormont is hanging by a thread. In the past decade or so, we’ve lost neighborhood theaters in Bellevue, Dormont and Mt. Lebanon. The Denis, in Mt. Lebanon, seems ready for a rebirth, and money is being raised (to contribute: www.denistheatre.org). Every year it sits vacant, however, brings it a little closer to the wrecking ball.

You can see the ghostly remnants and darkened marquees of many others along our main streets. The old Plaza Theater in Bloomfield now holds a Starbucks. The Beehive in Oakland — where I saw many amazing movies in college — now houses cell phone and clothing stores. Others simply lie vacant, like the Garden Theater on the North Side, whose sad decline into decrepitude followed the trajectory of so many urban theaters in the ’70s, by first becoming a porn theater.

Of course, every situation is different. The late Squirrel Hill Theater — long ago broken into several irregularly shaped screening rooms — had all kinds of wear-and-tear issues. But its programming was excellent, featuring many art films, foreign films and other ambitious fare.

The Hollywood Theater, on Potomac Avenue in Dormont, is a beautiful 1940s-era movie theater, a superior example of restoration and reuse. With both 35 mm and Dolby digital capabilities, the Hollywood shows everything from treasured classics like "Some Like it Hot" (1959) and "Breakfast at Tiffany’s" (1961) to horror and science fiction B-movies, Westerns, current independent films, and cult classics (details: www.hollywooddormont.com).

Unfortunately, no matter how much money and hard work are put into the Hollywood, none of it matters if nobody shows up. The little theater in perennially overlooked Dormont was clobbered by the winter snowstorms and recession, and now struggles to meet its operating expenses. The owner, Motion Picture Heritage — basically, two guys from the state of Indiana — say they fell in love with the theater and don’t run it for profit. It’s not hard to believe them. Nobody thinks running a little movie theater is a good way to make money. Recently, they held a fundraising craft fair to keep operating.

Not every new theater has to be terrible, of course.

The SouthSide Works Cinema, for instance, is well-integrated into an urban context. Its gleaming, neon faux-Art Deco facade and grand staircase, while not perfect, physically connect the theater to a proud cinematic tradition — while cramming in all the profitable extra screens and conveniences moviegoers have come to expect.

Still, it’s the old theaters that give color, texture and vibrancy to a neighborhood, and a city. So if you feel like going to the movies, by all means, support your local neighborhood movie theater.

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