Mt.Lebanon’s Denis Theatre as it looked in the mid-1960s. New plans are calling for a lounge, learning center and space for art exhibitions, among other amenities.
By Diana Nelson Jones / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Denis Theatre Foundation has begun a capital campaign to raise $1 million within the next year for reconstruction of the Mt. Lebanon movie house that closed in 2004.
With a $2 million endowment raised in cash and pledges since 2008, the foundation board is committing the next $1 million to renovation. Penny Richichi, the foundation's co-executive director, said the work could begin once the foundation has $750,000 of that amount.
The movie house was built in 1937 at 685 Washington Road as one large theater and was originally named for state Sen. John Harris, who took part in opening the first Nickelodeon in Pittsburgh in 1905. By the early 1920s, he owned 15 theaters in the mid-Atlantic region.
Vince Porco spent most of his life inside theaters, starting as a teenage usher. He managed the Denis when it showed "The Graduate" as an art film in 1968. In 1981, he was the construction supervisor whose crew carved the Denis into four theaters.
On a recent tour, he pointed out every nook and cranny, including a small flight of hidden stairs under a stage. Sounding like Tom Joad in "The Grapes of Wrath," he said that when the Denis reopens, "I'll be there."
That prediction sums up the sentiments of numerous Mt. Lebanon stakeholders in a video the foundation made to drum up support. Ellie Hall, a Washington Road merchant, was on business in Germany during the recent fundraising party but pleaded for support via video. "I am an arts lover and a film lover," she said. "My husband and I moved [to Mt. Lebanon] from Colorado, where there was an independent movie house, and when we found out about the Denis, we got involved."
She said she made a $100,000 contribution in honor of her husband, who has since died, and to show her belief in the project's future.
"There are three main reasons why people want it back," said Jane Delano, the foundation's other co-executive director. "The desire for good independent film, a stronger business district and love of the Denis."
"I grew up going to the Denis," said Loran Hickton, a member of the foundation's advisory board. "Saturday matinees."
After spending many years out west, he returned a few years ago, he said. "When I came back, I was interested in getting involved" in the reopening of the theater.
Bill Mehaffey, who serves on the foundation's advisory board, called the Denis "the baby sitter du jour" when he was a boy in the 1950s, and he spent Saturday mornings there watching cartoons. Later, he and his wife, Joann, would make an evening of walking to a restaurant and going to a movie there.
"People do walk in Mt. Lebanon," he said. "I can't help but think that with the Denis operating, it will provide that advantage to our community."
In the years before it closed, he said, "it had deteriorated and was not a pleasant experience, but people kept going."
The foundation team says the theater's demise was not for lack of community support and that the vision for its future has multiple opportunities for use and revenues. The theater will be run as a nonprofit by the foundation, which bought the theater in 2010 with help from the Pittsburgh Foundation and an anonymous donor.
"The days of competing with the Carmike's [national theater chain] are over," Mr. Hickton said. "We've done extensive research and talked to many people who have done similar projects to determine why it's going to work versus why it didn't work."
BSHM Architects of Ohio and NEXT Architecture of Pittsburgh have provided designs for the project. It includes two theaters within the Denis, one with 200 seats, one with 100. The facade design remains to be decided, Ms. Richichi said.
New iterations of old theaters often include a wine bar and food service. A diversity of use and revenue streams can act as a hedge against a film bombing.
The Denis will have a staging area for catered food service for events, but the foundation has no current plans for food preparation or a bar. It will have a concession stand, a lounge, a learning center and screening room, plus space for art exhibitions.
The team anticipates its use by film discussion groups and for lecture series, readings and other community events besides film. Film fare will include "first-run quality independent films, documentaries and foreign films," Ms. Richichi said.
The foundation will sell memberships, rent space for private events, and reap the economic benefits of going digital with no previous investment in old equipment. Another plus, Mr. Hickton said, is that "technology will be less expensive."
During the summer, the foundation showed movies in nearby Clearview Plaza on the last Saturday of each month and has established a film discussion group of 3,000, Mr. Hickton said.
Diana Nelson Jones: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.
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