Heinz Hall marks 40 years
The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra rehearses at Heinz Hall in 2006.
Heinz Hall, corner of Penn Avenue and Sixth Street, in 2002.
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It started life in 1927, billed in a newspaper ad as "a Temple of Cinema" dedicated to "the advancement of the art of silent drama."
Forty-three years later, the faded rococo movie palace that had been Loew's Penn Theatre -- the largest in the state, seating 4,000 people -- was rescued from the wrecking ball by one of Pittsburgh's solid citizens and became Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, where the art was anything but silent.
On Saturday, the hall celebrates its 40th anniversary as home of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and host, over the years, to world-renowned musical artists, from Luciano Pavarotti to Bruce Springsteen to Leonard Bernstein -- even as new generations of concertgoers might struggle to identify the man most responsible for its creation -- H.J. "Jack" Heinz II.
This year's celebration will be low key: The symphony is touring in Europe, so there will be no party, but the anniversary will be noted in programs and promotional materials. Banners will line Sixth and Penn avenues, a history book will be published and a commemorative plate will be for sale.
In 1971, the hall's official "dedication" concert glittered with celebrities -- Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Agnes de Mille, Marian Anderson and James Earl Jones -- and got rave reviews in the New York papers.
But the real opening concert had already taken place, recalls PG columnist Sally Kalson, who worked as an usher at Heinz Hall at the time. A few days earlier, there had been a concert for the men who reconstructed the hall -- the steam fitters, roofers, carpenters, electricians, painters -- and their families.
"Some guys were dressed in short sleeves and open-necked shirts, while others had suits and ties," Ms. Kalson said. "They all looked very proud to see the completion of their work and to get a taste of what would transpire in this palace they had built."
Indeed, Jim Gorton, co-principal oboist at the symphony, remembered how stunned he was when he inspected the new hall after arriving in 1971.
"Even in the basement, the boilers were gleaming and polished, and the backstage facilities were unparalleled," he said. "Jack Heinz wanted to do everything right, and it was not unappreciated, believe me."
After decades renting the former Syria Mosque in Oakland, the PSO finally had come home. But it's hard to imagine whether Heinz Hall would have become a reality were it not for Mr. Heinz, the driving force behind Pittsburgh's Downtown cultural renaissance.
Urbane, cultured and intensely civic minded, Jack Heinz was the second son of Howard C. Heinz, whose own father, H.J. Heinz, had founded the ketchup empire in the 19th century. Jack Heinz was chair of the H.J. Heinz Co. He owned homes in London and New York, but was often in Pittsburgh, where, as head of the Allegheny Conference, he and other leaders plotted the city's comeback after decades of decline.
"He'd call me and say, 'Sy, I just got into town, I got some fish, come over and have lunch,' " recalled Seymour Rosen, former PSO general manager. "We'd go for a swim, have lunch, talk about chamber music and then some. He was hands on. If we needed something, I knew I could ultimately get to Jack Heinz."
"He stayed with it every inch of the way," added Elsie Hillman, Republican political activist, philanthropist and a longtime friend of Mr. Heinz, who died in 1987.
While Mr. Heinz loved music, "Heinz Hall was all about the community," she said.
At the time the smaller concert houses of Europe seated 1,000 to 1,400 people -- "but Americans wanted larger halls, seating 3,000 people and up. You can't get the same kind of acoustics in buildings that size," said Al Filoni, an architect who worked on Heinz Hall's later expansion in the 1980s.
After ambitious plans for a performance center in the Lower Hill fell through because of costs, Mr. Heinz had people scout around for an alternative, and they came up with the Loew's Penn Theatre, which had closed in 1964.
"It was a very daring idea to locate the symphony in what was then a red-light district," Mr. Filoni said. "He really believed in Downtown Pittsburgh and he really believed that the hall needed to be built there."
The three-year reconstruction project was fraught with problems -- "of location, funding, acoustical design and others," recalled Henry Hillman, who served with Mr. Heinz on the Allegheny Conference, in an address at the hall's 20th anniversary celebration in 1991.
"But it was Jack's determination and perseverance that gave us this marvelous hall," he said.
Movie theaters were solidly built in the 1920s, using the best materials, with heavy-duty plasterwork and good sight lines -- "and if you have good sight lines you'll probably have good acoustics," Mr. Filoni said.
The theater's number of seats was reduced from 3,800 to about 2,700, but its basic architecture, in the French Court style, remained mostly unchanged by the architect, Donald MacLachlan, although the theater's entrance was moved into an area that was once a coffee shop, to be replaced with a 40-foot window rising above the Grand Lobby. The gold leaf was 24-karat and there were 12 Viennese crystal chandeliers.
Modern amenities were added for what was originally planned as a multipurpose facility: An adjustable orchestra pit powered by a hydraulic lift was added for opera and stage performances, and in the 1980s, Mr. Filoni helped design a garden plaza outside and a new five-story wing with dressing rooms, soundproofed rehearsal rooms and a music library.
When it did open -- on time -- it was so lavish a space that Liberace had his Christmas card photographs made in the hall because, former Pittsburgh Press music editor Carl Apone reported, it was one of the few places that could "match the opulence of his $325,000 Norwegian blue fox fur with 16-foot train."
New York Times music and dance critic Allan Hughes called the hall "an acoustical gem," although the hometown press was more skeptical.
Mr. Apone said the dedication concert, which was televised by WQED and led by the symphony's longtime conductor William Steinberg, was "a letdown." A special work had been commissioned for the occasion from Samuel Barber -- who, taking a line out of James Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake," titled the piece "Fadograph from a Yestern Scene" -- but the music was "mild and not very appealing," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette music critic Donald Steinfirst said. The orchestra used a borrowed fiberglass shell, and the sound on the floor level was so muffled, The Press's Carl Apone said, "that the orchestra sounded very much like William Steinberg's All-Wimp Chamber Orchestra."
"It had some acoustical problems in the beginning," said retired PG Music Critic Robert Croan, "You heard almost a different concert in different parts of the house," most notoriously in the back of the first floor, under the balcony, "but today it's one of the better halls in the country."
When Mr. Steinberg conducted his last concert there in 1976 -- Beethoven's Ninth -- WQED announcer Jim Cunningham, then a college student, was there. There was so much applause and so many curtain calls "they had to make a public address announcement saying that Mr. Steinberg wanted to thank them, 'and we hope you understand he is exhausted after this emotional week.' He'd come out so many times he couldn't do it anymore."
Heinz Hall may never match the acoustics of Boston Symphony Hall or the Musikverein in Vienna, but its sound improved dramatically after 1987, when the Benedum -- formerly the Stanley Theater, another movie palace -- opened, thus giving the city a second venue for the Pittsburgh Opera, Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, Civic Light Opera and Pittsburgh Dance Council.
Heinz Hall was then retrofitted to maximize the symphony's sound, and improvements are continuing, said PSO president Larry Tamburri, who was playing with the Pittsburgh Youth Orchestra when the hall opened in 1971.
Last year, in the first phase of a $20 million project, sidewalks were replaced and the garden plaza was renovated. The hall was closed this summer so the roof could be repaired and the sound system and stage rigging upgraded in time for its gala reopening Sept. 17.
Today "we want to ensure that the hall is in great shape for the future," Mr. Tamburri said. "This is the jewel of the Downtown, and we want to do everything we can to maintain that status."
For Jack Heinz, at least.
"Mr. Steinberg said a hall should be a festive, brilliant place that emphasizes the music first, the musicians and then the audience," Mr. Rosen added. "That's exactly what Jack Heinz accomplished with Heinz Hall."
First Published September 4, 2011 12:00 am