Eyewitness: 1950 -- The first Nixon closes; long live the Nixon
May 2, 2010 4:00 AM
Mae West with W.C. Fields
By Len Barcousky Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As Mayor David Lawrence saw it, sentiment could not stand in the way of "Pittsburgh's march of progress."
He and Mae West shared the stage of the Nixon Theater on April 29, 1950, after the final performance of her play, "Diamond Lil." The 47-year-old theater was scheduled for demolition, making way for the new headquarters of the Aluminum Company of America.
But the mayor also offered hope to the 2,256 people who came to the closing-night performance. "The Nixon is not dying," he told the crowd, according to the May 1 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "We didn't come here to bury the Nixon, but to praise it and move it."
Pittsburgh had a long tradition of renaming and even relocating landmark structures, the mayor said. "He recalled how St. Paul's Cathedral, which used to be at Fifth Avenue and Grant Street, had been razed to rise again in Oakland," reporter Gene Jannuzi wrote. "[H]ow St. Peter's Episcopal Church had been moved stone by stone from Diamond and Grant to Forbes and Craft to make way for the Frick Building."
The Nixon, too, would get a new address. It would relocate from Sixth Avenue into the soon-to-be-renamed Senator Theater on Liberty Avenue, a distance of about three blocks.
"Diamond Lil" was a short three-act play linked to "one of the longest curtain-calls on record," Mr. Jannuzi wrote. Mae West offered the crowd "about 10 minutes of rehearsed coyness" as she took her bows.
In the audience for that final show Mr. Jannuzi found two women -- Mrs. Arthur Sheets and Mrs. J.W. Henry -- who had attended the opening night performance at the Nixon "in the winter of 1903 as young girls."
"Mrs. Sheets had with her the sheepskin-bound program that had been a first-night souvenir," he wrote.
Pittsburgh theatergoers were determined to collect some of their own souvenirs from that last night.
"Suddenly before the theater was emptied, the dismantling of the house began ..."
"They took the shades off the clusters of lights on the marble pillars ... All the mirrors had disappeared from the ladies' and men's rooms. A dozen box seat chairs were missing."
Somebody removed more practical items. "Manager Eddie Wappler reported that two toilet seats had been stolen from the ladies' room," Mr. Jannuzi wrote.
A second story in that same edition described plans to convert the Senator from strictly a movie palace to a "legitimate" theater. Local businessmen had backed the move. They were "determined to see Pittsburgh retain its position as one of the time-honored road centers off Broadway" for traveling shows.
The theater was scheduled to open in September, and "the initial offering of a new era [was to be] the Rodgers and Hammerstein smash musical 'Oklahoma!'"
The Nixon had a 22-year run on Liberty Avenue, serving as a venue for both stage shows and movies. It closed in 1972 and was demolished in 1975 to make room for a parking lot.
The building that replaced the old Nixon, Alcoa's former headquarters, has itself become a Downtown landmark. Completed in 1953, its exterior walls and much of its interior decoration were made of, what else, aluminum. It was renamed the Regional Enterprise Tower when Alcoa moved from what is now Mellon Square to new offices on the North Shore.
Gene Jannuzi, who covered the Nixon closing, left the Post-Gazette for the steel business. He retired as CEO of the former Moltrup Steel in Beaver Falls. Contacted by phone, he remembered writing the Nixon Theater story, staying up much of the night to rework and polish it. Now 94, he still writes occasional op-ed pieces for the newspaper.