The Hollywood Theater is the last of three that once stood in the Pittsburgh suburb of Dormont, PA. The building was first constructed in 1925 and has undergone one major reconstruction and several remodels. Throughout the multitude of owners and operators, the Theater’s doors have been shut for a total of 18 years of its lifetime.
The Theater first opened as a silent picture house “on or about Labor Day” 1926 under the control of Edward James Murray, a founding member of the Hollywood Amusement Company. The building had two store fronts and a bowling alley in the basement, sometimes referred to as “Murray’s Bowling & Billiards”. The most impressive portion of the building, however, was its lavish atmospheric auditorium, seating 700, courtyard interior, balcony, and stars in the ceiling. “Where the moon and stars shine” was an appropriate tagline for the new Theater, used greatly during its early years. The architect of the original structure was Charles R. Geisler of Pittsburgh. Construction was contracted to H. Justin Brown at a cost of approximately $70,000. In early 1927, E.J. Murray transferred ownership of the building to The Hollywood Amusement Company, a company in which he was also a shareholder.
The Theater was a prominent meeting place throughout the late 1920s. Guest speakers frequented the Theater, the Dormont New Century Club being known to sponsor many. The Club consistently used the space as a meeting place as well. Other highlights include the hosting of the “Miss Dormont” contest, presentations of visiting Iroquois Indian Ho-Gaw-Das, and the publishing of a monthly paper titled “Hollywood News”.
The Theater was purchased by Warner Bros. Theatres, Inc. on June 11th, 1930 for $200,000. The Warners did not open the doors until fall 1931; operations then continued as usual until late-1932 when doors were closed again. It is believed that the addition to the original marquee was installed during this time. An initial theory for the closing is the large number of movie houses the Warners had in the area. In 1934 Harry Kalmine, zone manager for Warners, decided to reopen the Theater for weekend showings. Upon reopening November 2nd of that year, the Theater had received its first sound equipment and screen, among other remodeling and redecoration. Prior to this, films were projected on to the back wall. The first programs were “You’re Telling Me” and “A Lost Lady” and the Theater acted as a subsequent-run venue.
The Theater again saw success through the mid-to-late-1930s, partially due to the showmanship of well-known manager Chuck Shannon. Other area managers during this time were Henry Koch, Larry Huttinger, and Henry Berger. The store fronts, still in use at this time, housed a dry cleaner and a flower shop for much of this time. On February 11th, 1939, Warner Bros. Theatres, Inc. transferred ownership to its subsidiary, Northeastern Theatres, Inc.
The outbreak of World War II caused the manager to cycle through several managers in the early-to-mid-1940s, among them Dave Smith, Bud Mayer, John N. Carroll, and Jean Porter.
The doors of the Theater were again closed on April 19th, 1948 for yet another remodeling and upgrade. This time, however, the interior of the theater was completely removed except for the superstructure. Architect Victor A. Rigaumont designed the reconstruction which removed the store fronts and bowling alley, expanded seating of the auditorium, and removed the atmospheric effect in favor of a more modern style. Different outlets report the expanded seating capacity as over 1000, with some claiming close to 1500 seats. The front facade of the building remained, however the original cast-iron marquee was replaced with an impressively lit Warner Bros. themed marquee. The building reopened on November 5 with a showing of “Rope”, and soon became the highlight of the Warners’ chain.
Warner Bros. again transferred the theater to a subsidiary in 1953, this time Stanley Warner Theatres. Notable employees from this era are Edgar Lewis, Jim Laux, and Joie Vance. Doors remained open until another extensive remodeling in 1966 when new seats (approximately 730), fabric, vinyl wallpaper, and a wider screen are installed. A green and gold color scheme would now welcome theater goers.
In 1967, operation of the Theater transferred to RKO-Stanley Warner Theatres, Inc., after the merger of RKO Theatres Corp and the Stanley Warner Theater group by parent-company Glen Alden Corp. The “WB” from the theater’s marquee is reportedly removed at this time.
1973 would see yet another transfer of ownership of the building, this time to Cinemette Theaters, Inc. Cinemette operated the Hollywood as a second-run theater until 1979, when they defaulted on a majority of their loans. Major creditor, Ernest Stern, purchased Cinemette Theatres and their assets at this time, adding them to his already extensive network of Pittsburgh theaters.
In July 1982 Potomac Avenue was widened and the Borough of Dormont paid for the removal of the large Warner Bros. era marquee. Earlier that year, the projection equipment received a much needed upgrade as well. Business was not booming as one would hope, as Cinemette reportedly owed several thousand in back-taxes to Dormont Borough this same year.
On April 18th, 1988 Ernest Stern ceases operations at the Theater with a showing of “The Fox and the Hound” and “Frantic”. Stern had recently sold most of this theaters to Cinema World in 1987, but had retained a handful of theaters, among them the Hollywood.
The doors opened again on June 1st, 1990 under the management of Neighbor Cinemas, Inc., who leased the building for a trial year. Opening films were “All Dogs Go to Heaven” and “I Love You to Death”. President David Bevilacqua previously renovated and reopened the Rex Theater, another Pittsburgh theater. Business was booming with over 2000 people frequenting the Theater per week. Not long after opening, the Theater received a sound upgrade on September 13th.
April 2nd, 1995 was the final day of operation under Neighbor Cinemas with a showing “Steel Magnolias”, but doors were not closed long. Rick Stern, son of the late Ernest Stern and now the building owner, reopened on June 1st under the control of his CineMagic name. His first films were “Johnny Mnemonic” and “The Pebble & the Penguin”.
The doors were closed yet again on April 2nd, 1998 with a showing of “The Wedding Singer”, “The Borrowers”, and “Twilight”. The building was later purchased by the Keystone Oaks School District and the Borough of Dormont at sheriff’s sale for extensive back-taxes on May 4th.
On March 5, 2001, the building was purchased by a group under the name Hollywood Partners, LLC. However, the Hollywood would not see its doors opened again for quite some time.
March 30th, 2007 finally saw the reopening of the Hollywood after almost 10 years. The building, now operated by The Bradley Center of Mt. Lebanon, Pa, undergoes a complete renovation. The lobby is made larger, and new paint, fabric, and seats are installed. The auditorium now seats a meager 285 due to updates in building code. A digital projector that can play DVDs is introduced alongside a classic 35mm projector. Opening attractions were “Dreamgirls” and “Night at the Museum”, and the Theater plays second-run films.
A little over a year later the Theater closed yet again on Monday May 26th, 2008. The Theater reopened on July 10th, 2009 under Motion Picture Heritage Corporation, but closed less than a year later on June 1st, 2010.
A year later, the Friends of the Hollywood Theater opened the doors on May 4th, 2011, and has been consistently been playing movies and hosting events ever since.
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