Manor Theater upgrades include bar and new lobby

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The Manor Theater , like Betty White, is turning 90.

Instead of a televised birthday bash, the Squirrel Hill landmark is getting a lobby face-lift, conversion to digital projection and, after a liquor license is secured, a bar serving craft beer, wine and select cocktails.

Theater operator Richard Stern is aiming for completion by May 15, which is when the Murray Avenue venue opened in 1922. At the time, the theater was hailed as having "the atmosphere of a country club" by the publication Moving Picture World.

Assuming all goes as planned, a storage area in the back will be turned into a bar and a new concession stand will be located along the wall closest to Darlington Road. Moving it from the middle of the space will allow for seating there, according to a design by architect Jen Bee.

It was the mandate to adapt or die (well, wither) that touched off the plans.

"Pretty much by the end of 2013 or '14, I don't think there will be any more 35mm film. It all started with us looking into the digital conversion," Mr. Stern said.

"The film distributors and film companies are giving incentives to theater owners that convert in 2011 and 2012," Mr. Stern said, with a 10-year program that will almost cover the cost of the equipment. "It's a very expensive conversion to make, especially for us small guys."

Once he began investigating that transition, he and his daughter, Alexa Stern, started looking beyond the hardware change. He had worked with his father, theater circuit owner Ernest Stern, and she is starting to learn the business, although they rely on manager Denise Beloncis to run the day-to-day operation.

"It's always nice to have fresh eyes and somebody young on your team who helps you look at things in a different way," he said.

The theater, housed in a building blending Elizabethan and Tudor styles, has undergone many changes since its opening by James B. Clark of Rowland and Clark Theatres. Its single screen eventually was split into two and, later, four auditoriums.

"I guess, about seven years ago, I replaced the seats and did a little minor refurbishment," Mr. Stern said. "It's time to make some changes."

That means trying to capitalize on the trend of serving food and alcohol, as AMC-Loews at the Waterfront and other theaters do. "We thought about how we could create a little cine-bistro type atmosphere in the lobby with a limited amount of space," Mr. Stern said.

He hired architect Jen Bee who did some of his restaurants (Spoon in East Liberty, Willow in Ohio Township and BRGR in East Liberty and Cranberry) to explore that question. "We've come up with a plan to pretty much open up a back storage area, tear out a wall in the lobby and create a little bar to serve beer, liquor and wine."

Mr. Stern may supplement the usual popcorn, soft drinks and candy with granola bars and trail mix along with tapas-style finger food such as shrimp tempura, antipasto kebabs, potstickers, mini-Reuben puff pastries, Thai curry samosas and personal pizzas, which can be consumed in the lobby or theaters without utensils.

The conversion to digital equipment (although the Manor will retain a 35mm projector for old-school prints) will take place upstairs, out of sight of customers. Mr. Stern hopes the theater can stay open during the renovation although concessions might be limited or unavailable for a short period.

Mr. Stern expects to install new navy blue leather seats with cupholders that can accommodate trays and also make improvements in the sound system to complement more pristine pictures. "It's like going from regular TV to high-def, it's much clearer, there's no flickering, no film going through sprockets."

The project could cost roughly $500,000, with the digital conversion accounting for $275,000, which slowly will be repaid.

"It's reimbursed over time through virtual print fees that the film company pays every time you open a first-run picture. Now they're not having to make a 35mm print, which costs $2,500 to $3,000 a print; they basically just give you a computer chip ... and you have a huge server and you just download the content into your server. It's pretty amazing how the whole industry is changing.

"We're excited, I think it's going to be a great change and I think our clientele will embrace the addition of expanded food options and beer, liquor and wine. It's a growing trend across the country."

The updates dovetail with results of a survey conducted by students from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University about the theater.

When they asked about suggested Manor improvements, respondents said they wanted the venue to be updated, offer a larger and healthier selection of food and drinks, provide student discounts and expand its social media network. The Manor now has a Facebook page and plans a new website and online ticketing.

"It's a great theater. We've found our niche with the film companies, they love playing our theater. The product that we play there does well."

The renovated lobby will feature a nod to the past with a framed print showing what the theater looked like when it opened with an oval-shaped auditorium that became circular at the front near the screen. It accommodated 1,500 patrons, featured a parlor with a fireplace, settees and chairs and a lounge room.

Moving Picture World reported the lounge was "equipped with a rough red tile floor, an old English stone mantel with hand irons and logs, and is finished in dark oak woodwork. This room, exclusively for the use of men patrons, presents a cozy appearance ..."

That's not all that's changed in an industry seeing a growing number of theaters offering alcoholic drinks and-or food.

Patrick Corcoran at the National Association of Theatre Owners, says the organization just started surveying venues about this issue, but 400 out of roughly 5,300 sell food, alcoholic drinks or both. Some, not all, have servers inside the auditoriums while patrons can eat in the lobby or carry their food inside in other locations.

Second-run theaters in Texas were among the trailblazers since many studios thought food would detract from the movie. That thinking changed in the late 1990s when they realized theaters could show new movies and provide restaurant and-or bar service.

For a long time, theaters watched the dinner part of "dinner-and-a-movie" go elsewhere. Mr. Corcoran predicts some growth although theaters essentially must figure out a way to operate both sides of the business, not disrupt the moviegoing experience and keep all customers satisfied.

Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: . First Published January 22, 2012 5:00 AM


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