A map from 1923 identifies this building as the “A. Benedix Theatre,” which we would guess was a neighborhood movie palace. It’s crammed into an awkward lot in the Woods Run valley, so that is not a trick of photographic perspective in the picture above: the front really is at an odd angle to the rest of the building. But (in spite of the replacement of the ground floor by a garage) it does have the look and the narrow and deep shape of a low-budget theater. Father Pitt will therefore add this to his collection of silent-movie theaters still standing, unless someone gives him better information.
About seven years ago old Pa Pitt published this big composite picture of the old Strand Theatre on Forbes Avenue across from Oakland. A little while ago Father Pitt came across this item in The Moving Picture World for August 14, 1915.
New House in Oakland, Pa.
Natatorium Building Being Remodeled—Will Be Made Into Up-to-Date Picture Theater—Located Between Atwood and Meyran Avenues—Designed to Seat 750 People—Those Who Are Interested in the New Project.
Special to Moving Picture World from Pittsburgh News Service.
OAKLAND is to have a new moving picture theater in the Natatorium building. The lower floors, being remodeled, show careful attention to details and give promise of a thoroughly up-to-date and practical theater. The building, between Atwood and Meyran avenues, runs to a paved alley way in the rear, and with this private alley complies fully with the city laws on the subject of exits. The plans call for the abandonment of the present swimming pool and the lowering of the auditorium floor to the Forbes street level. The present stone steps leading to the entrance will be done away with. The auditorium ceiling will be 24 feet high. The floors above the auditorium will not be disturbed by the alterations, although the stairs will be moved to the left of the entrance, and a new elevator lobby constructed. It will seat 750 persons.
The owners of the Oakland Natatorium building are the Oakland Amusement Company; George H. Schwan is the architect; C. H. Keer Construction Company are the contractors, and the lessee is James B. Clark. The operation company will be the Rowland and Clark theaters, which also operates the Regent, in East Liberty, the Belmar in Homewood, the Arsenal in Lawrenceville, the Bellevue and the Oakland and the Schenley Photo play in Oakland, which latter house will be discontinued on the completion of the new house. Construction starts July 26, and the date set for the opening is November 1.
Was this the building? None of Father Pitt’s sources had mentioned that it was a converted bathhouse, but once he had the name “Natatorium” it took only a short time to find this picture:
This is from the Historic Pittsburgh site, which has an incredible collection of treasures. Unfortunately they are served up by a fiendishly complicated system that builds each picture from a mosaic of tiny pieces, so the high-resolution versions are impossible to get with any reasonable amount of work. Librarians often restrict access to public-domain works, either out of proprietary feeling or, more likely, out of a hope that it will make them less likely to get sued if they make a mistake about the copyright status. It is also true that “There may be a fee to acquire hi-res files,” according to the site FAQ, which adds a profit motive.
At any rate, here’s our building, with a sign out front advertising “Turkish Bath—Swimming Pool,” and a huge painted sign on the side probably advertising the same (we can see only the bottom of the sign in this picture). We can also see the Iroquois Building across the street, and the Schenley Hotel in the distance. So, yes, the Strand Theatre was originally a high-class bathhouse.
There is a slight mystery about the architect. The article above mentions George H. Schwan, a Pittsburgh architect more famous for his work in Akron. Other sources listed Harry S. Bair, the architect of the same company’s Regent Theater in East Liberty. Perhaps one was the architect of the original building, and the other of the renovations.
This little movie house, built as the Avenue Cinema in 1931, became the Art Cinema in 1935; from the 1960s until the 1990s, it showed “adult movies,” which old Pa Pitt assumed meant that all the films were over 21 years old. But it had begun life as an art-film house, and in 1995 it resumed that role under the name “Harris,” after one of the founders of the movie-theater business—John P. Harris, who with his brother-in-law opened the world’s first movie theater, the Nickelodeon, which was on Smithfield Street (a plaque marks the site today). Movies had been shown in theaters before, but the Nickelodeon was the first to show only movies. The idea caught on with amazing rapidity, and “Nickelodeons” sprouted everywhere.
Some time ago old Pa Pitt took a picture of this silent-era neighborhood movie theater in the middle of its recent renovation. It is pleasing to see it now nicely finished and home to a video-production company. It has had an eventful and oddly circular history. It was built before 1914, since it appears in a 1914 guide to Pittsburgh (which describes Beechview as “beyond the South Hills,” showing how the definition of “South Hills” has moved with the expansion of the suburbs). After some decades as a theater, it was turned into an American Legion post. Then for a while it became a nursing home. Finally it was renovated as you see it now and brought back to its roots in the movie business.
An update: According to a 1923 map, this was called the Olympic Theater. There were at least three theaters in Beechview in 1923.
Uptown Mount Lebanon has one of the best collections of Art Deco architecture in the area. These two buildings sit side by side on Washington Road at the corner of Alfred Street. With some confidence, old Pa Pitt identifies the Gothic fantasy on the right as an old movie theater, although he would be happy to be corrected.
Sometimes the back of a theater bears no resemblance at all to the front of it. That is certainly true of the Denis in Mount Lebanon. The main entrance is on Washington Road, and it looks like a small storefront. Walk around the corner and down Alfred Street, and you will find this massive wall, which the architect has identified as a theater by adding Art Deco stripes in the bricks.
The Warner was one of the great silent-movie palaces downtown, but it had the misfortune to be placed far from the theater district along Penn Avenue. In the 1980s most of it was demolished for a shopping arcade, leaving the classical façade on Fifth Avenue and the distinctive lighted sign, with the word “Theatre” replaced by “Centre,” because the shopping-arcade and movie-theater industries share an assumption that British spellings attract more customers. The shopping arcade, like most arcades downtown, gradually transitioned to mostly offices. But the sign still dominates the view down Fifth Avenue.
The Town Square at the SouthSide Works, decorated for Christmas. The SouthSide Works Cinema is a good imitation of an Art Deco neighborhood movie house, though the Deco entrance leads to a modern multiplex.
Though old Pa Pitt has not yet found any documentary evidence, he identifies this building with some confidence as an old neighborhood movie house. The marquee, the Hollywood Gothic fantasy terra-cotta front, and the shape of the building (it is fairly long from front to back) all suggest a movie theater of the silent era.
Almost every neighborhood in Pittsburgh and the urban inner suburbs had a neighborhood movie house—or several of them—in the silent-movie era, and many of those buildings are still standing (here are all of old Pa Pitt’s articles on movie theaters). What is nearly unique about the Hollywood, built in 1925, is that it is still showing movies. In fact it shows first-run movies these days, with occasional classic revivals, and a theater-organ performance every once in a while. The Theatre Historical Society of America bought the place in 2018, and we can hope that they will be able to keep it going for many years.
We can see from this picture that the building has gone through some renovations over the decades, not all of them sympathetic. But the basic outline has not changed. For some reason Mission style was very popular in Dormont in the 1920s, and the Hollywood’s movie-lot interpretation of Spanish-colonial architecture is very appropriate for its setting and use.