Since its opening in 1938 as a grand, one-screen movie house that seated more than 1,200, the Denis Theatre has had plenty of time to build a loyal group of patrons, and many were disappointed when the theater closed in 2004.
Film lover Laura Buerger, 45, previously lived in Boston, Dallas, St. Louis and Philadelphia, where she attended art film houses every chance she got.
"When my husband, Dan, and I moved to Mt. Lebanon in 1999, part of the community's allure was that it had the Denis Theatre," she recalled. "We were devastated when it closed and now have to get our indie film fix at a local video store."
Mrs. Buerger and her husband weren't alone in feeling remorseful about the closing.
Anne Kemerer said she felt so strongly about the theater that she helped form the nonprofit Denis Theatre Foundation in 2007 with the hope of bringing it back to life. She also became the organization's first executive director, a position she held until 2010, the year the foundation bought the building.
"The building needs a lot of renovation, including new plumbing, new fire safety equipment and new heating, ventilation, air conditioning and mechanical systems," said Valerie Golik, 51, of Marshall, the foundation's current executive director. "Much of the infrastructure is original to the building and is now very inefficient."
To help finance the theater's first phase of renovation -- a $2.5 million project that calls for a complete overhaul of the infrastructure and the opening of the first of three film screens by early 2013 -- the community gifts committee of the foundation's capital campaign has organized a "Denis Goes to the Oscars" fundraiser, scheduled for Academy Awards night, Feb. 26.
Mrs. Buerger, committee chairwoman, is hoping local film lovers will attend at one or both of the event locations: Atria's Restaurant and Tavern, 4049 Washington Road in Peters, or Bistro 19, 711 Washington Road in Mt. Lebanon. The fundraiser begins at 7:30 p.m. at both locations and includes complimentary appetizers and desserts as well as a cash bar.
"We'll have televisions set up and tuned in to the Oscars, while patrons can sit at tables or mill around," she said. "Festive Oscar attire is welcome but not required, and we'll also stage a series of small film-related games and quizzes."
Tickets are $50 in advance at Bistro 19 or $60 at the door and $25 in advance at Atria's or $35 at the door. A combined ticket for both venues is $60. Call 412-523-3063.
"We're hoping for about 60 attendees at each venue, and we'll also have six by-invitation-only parties in private homes throughout the South Hills," Mrs. Buerger said. "So far we've raised about half of our Phase 1 goal of $2.5 million, thanks to a lot of momentum gained by contributions by both individuals and foundations in the last couple of months, including a six-figure gift from the Eden Hall Foundation."
The second phase of the renovation will begin immediately after the first phase is completed. The goal is to have both phases of the $4.5 million renovation completed in two or three years.
"More square footage is involved in Phase 2, but when it starts, all the improvements to the infrastructure will have been completed," Mrs. Golik said. "We plan to do some aggressive fundraising this year to keep everything on track and really need an output of support from all over the South Hills, not just from Mt. Lebanon."
The foundation board sees the new Denis as an arts destination that will continue to focus on film but also promote other arts such as music, photography, poetry, literary events and even puppet shows.
Already, internationally renowned pop artist and Pittsburgh native Burton Morris created original art just for the capital campaign that appears on the theater's website and promotional literature. He also has told the foundation he plans to get involved with an art project with children that eventually will be displayed on a wall of the theater.
"Ultimately, our goal is to be a place where the arts are valued and where our patrons can walk through the door and be immersed in the world of the arts," Mrs. Golik said.
Although the theater remains closed, the foundation has been holding monthly Reel-to-Real film discussions at various locations.
A discussion of Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" will be held 5 p.m. Jan. 29 in the party room at Washington Square Condominiums, 750 Washington Road, Mt. Lebanon. Online registration for the discussion is required at www.denistheatre.org .
Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published January 19, 2012 5:00 AM