Former North Side porn theater awaits restoration as a possible arts space

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

In the years before it turned to X-rated films, the Garden Theater was so averse to hosting off-color movies that it would not even show "Frankenstein."

John Heller, Post-Gazette
The former adult movie theater will be the setting for Quantum Theatre's "The Collected Works of Billy the Kid."
Click image for larger version.
Listen In:

Pittsburgh's Quantum Theatre will stage "The Collected Works of Billy the Kid," the first production in the North Side's Garden Theater since the city purchased the former X-rated theater in April after a long legal battle. Quantum's artistic director Karla Boos describes the theater and Quantum's uses for it to reporter Tim McNulty:

On choosing the Garden as a site for a production

On how much cleaning was required

On what Quantum patrons might experience at the Garden


The North Side theater had such a good architectural pedigree, and such deep roots going back to the silent film era, that longtime owner Bennett Amdur could afford to be picky. It was only after his death in 1970 -- and with the popularity of television killing off neighborhood movie theaters nationwide -- that the new owners would flip his prim philosophy on its head and show pornographic movies to survive.

Adult films played for more than 30 years in the theater -- and on the consciousness of neighborhood visitors. With the Garden reclaimed after a six-year court battle this spring, residents hope to look at the theater and its storied history with pride.

No matter how much good was going on elsewhere in the North Side -- from the Mattress Factory, the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh and other cultural institutions -- those looking at the Garden got an indelible image of a neighborhood marked by blight, porn and crime.

The theater "was the face of the North Side and was a bad representation of what's going on," said Becky Davidson-Wagner of the Central Northside Neighborhood Council. "The new Garden puts a positive face on what is happening."

Greg Mucha, a Central North Side resident for 20 years, beamed as he looked around the theater's yellow and red lobby recently, during a party thrown by Quantum Theatre.

"It's like childbirth after 18 years. It's about time. We're through pushing," he said.

The excitement about the theater is warranted, as the North Side is getting something pretty special after all these years. Strip away the detritus of its recent porn past and there is an arts space that has hardly changed since it was built in 1915.

In the Garden, the city has a rare relic of the silent movie era, one listed in the Historical American Buildings Survey with the Library of Congress, and which remarkably has its original layout, seating, lighting and Art Nouveau fixtures.

The paint is peeling and the place needs a thorough renovation -- including asbestos removal -- but the bones of a handsome, surprisingly large 1,000-seat theater are still there.

Through the years

The Garden was built by David E. Park, a steel-industry scion and banker who lived a few blocks east at the current site of Allegheny General Hospital. Park had an eye for architecture -- the Park Building at Smithfield Street and Fifth Avenue Downtown was his -- and chose Thomas H. Scott to design his movie house at 10 W. North Ave., on land he purchased for $28,000 in 1906.

When the Nickelodeon craze started in Pittsburgh and swept the nation a decade earlier, movies were often shown in cheap, dingy storefronts. Scott, the architect of the Benedum-Trees building on Fourth Avenue Downtown, designed something grander, a two-story theater faced with glazed terra cotta tile that fit the ascendant entertainment form.

By the time the Garden was built in 1915, says a 14-page Historical American Buildings Survey data sheet from 1978, "motion picture theaters became more substantial and dignified than the earlier Nickelodeons. The Garden Theater is a typical little-changed neighborhood movie house of this century's second decade."

Park named the theater the "Garden" as a pun on his name. Soon after the doors opened in 1916 or 1917 (the exact opening date is unknown), Bennett Amdursky became its manager, shortened his name to Amdur and bought the theater from Park's son in 1924. The theater "became the pride of his life," the historical survey states. "He worked at the theatre daily until his death in the spring of 1970, over a half-century later."

The Garden was built as a movie theater only: There is no mention in the historical record of it hosting vaudeville or live performances, and its stage, where the screen is, has none of the fly space or backstage areas typical of live theater facilities. Some live events, such as chamber music concerts, were held in a second-floor apartment (which also gave access to its 1958 marquee).

"The Garden catered to the carriage trade. Mr. Amdur kept a clean place," then-manager Lee Vaupel told the Post-Gazette in 1970.

Besides his uneasiness with films such as "Frankenstein," Amdur was obsessed with his theater's history, making only slight renovations in the late 1920s and overhauling the projection booth in 1954. "No other alterations of consequence were made, because Amdur stoutly refused to change the appearance of the building that meant so much to him," the Library of Congress record says.

Library of Congress
The Garden Theater as seen in the Historic American Buildings Survey in a photograph by Jack E. Boucher, on Sept. 10, 1971.
Click photo for larger image.John Heller, Post-Gazette
At a recent reception at the Garden Theater thrown by Quantum Theatre, Jeff and Jacqui Morby look at Quantum's upcoming season's roster.
Click image for larger version.

When Amdur died in 1970, his black-draped portrait stood in the theater's darkened lobby for 30 days.

The Garden was a second-run theater that showed films after they premiered at the grander movie palaces Downtown, said North Side historian John Canning. Like other neighborhood theaters around the city -- and the nation -- they began closing as TV started to take over American culture.

The Buildings Survey study of the Garden, begun in 1970 by a Washington, D.C., architect, was partially done to preserve the history of such theaters before they disappeared. By the time the study was filed eight years later, the Garden had already turned to adult films to survive.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were tumultuous times in Pittsburgh and other urban centers, and the Garden's owners were having trouble filling the theater. When people did come, Canning said, they often vandalized the place.

In the summer of 1972, the X-rated film "Deep Throat" opened and became a mainstream sensation nationwide, getting coverage in The New York Times and becoming the Washington Post's code name for its secret Watergate source. The Garden debuted it Jan. 3, 1973, and audiences increased from 30 to 300 per showing, the manager told the Post-Gazette that year.

Allegheny County District Attorney Robert Duggan ended the film's run nine days later, but the Garden's new life as an adult theater had begun.

The inside story

So just how disgusting is it inside the Garden after 34 years of X-rated movies? Not as much as one would imagine.

The only signs of its recent past are a condom machine in the men's room and a walled-off section of 20 seats in one corner where gay-themed films were shown. A remediation team hired by the Urban Redevelopment Authority tested various parts of the facility and found nothing harmful, other than asbestos.

The city paid $1.1 million for the building. The previous owners removed pornographic posters and other materials before they handed it over in April, leaving just a musty old theater in need of repairs.

"They did nothing in the way of remodeling" over the years, said the URA's construction manager, Marino Marangoni. "The roof leaked, the plaster is cracked, and the paint is peeling. There was no real maintenance of the building inside. It wasn't a concern of the patrons."

John Heller, Post-Gazette
Karla Boos, Quantum's artistic director, says, "What amazed me is it hasn't been messed up" by a renovation when it was a porno house.
Click photo for larger image.John Heller, Post-Gazette
The current condition of the 1,000-seat theater.
Click image for larger version.

The theater's 1954 film projectors are also still in place, as the previous owners simply left them untouched when the adult film industry switched to video. The original ticket booth is gone but in safe keeping at the Frick Art & Historical Center in Point Breeze.

The spooky, time-stopped feel of the Garden seems a perfect match for the experimental Quantum Theatre, which will stage "The Collected Works of Billy the Kid" there starting June 14. While Quantum will clean the theater and install new seating and restrooms for the play, the rest of the place will be untouched.

"What amazed me is it hasn't been messed up," Quantum artistic director Karla Boos said during a recent tour. "There hasn't been an ugly renovation to the place in the '70s or '80s when it was operating as a porn theater."

Redevelopment teams have studied the site and are due to submit plans to the URA by May 31, along with plans for a neighboring Masonic Hall and a boarded-up apartment building, the Bradberry, designed by Frederick Osterling.

The Garden will likely be used as some kind of theater or arts space, though exact plans are not yet known, URA executive director Jerry Dettore said.

"We want someone to buy, restore, reactivate, pay property taxes and revitalize this block," said Dettore.

Walk across North Avenue from the theater and one stands in the former center of the city of Allegheny, which Pittsburgh took over in 1907, eight years before the Garden was built. More than 500 structures in old Allegheny were eventually destroyed, much of it during misguided revitalization efforts that reached their zenith in the late 1960s, when the Garden was also facing crisis.

The lesson? Despite all the bad images X-rated movies brought to the North Side over the past three decades, they might have saved the Garden, a rare jewel of a bygone era, from the wrecking ball.


Tim McNulty can be reached at tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.


Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here