Local Theaters Offer Entertainment Close to Home
Jan 01, 2018 02:07PM
● By Shari Berg
The Strand Theater
Back in March of 2001, North Hills’ resident Ron Carter didn’t start his day thinking that he would begin a charity to buy a run-down theater on the main street of Zelienople. Yet, before the day was through, that’s exactly what he was inspired to do.
“I discovered the theater quite by accident when I was taking my son to school for flag-football practice,” he said. “I saw it was for sale and knew that it had potential. I brought in a contractor, took a good look, and decided that it was just what this area needed—a professional cultural center.”
Sixteen years later, that risk has paid off. The Strand Theater has been renovated well beyond its former glory thanks to Carter and a dedicated group of volunteers who make up The Strand Theater Initiative. The initiative raised $2.5 million for phase one of the renovation that was used to restore the exterior of the building and overhaul the entire interior. Some components of the original theater have been incorporated during the renovations, including two original movie projectors. The result is a versatile structure capable of showing films or hosting live performances.
While the initial intention when he first restored the Strand was to use it to show classic films, Carter quickly discovered that the demand was not there. “When we first opened, I thought it would be a draw for the classics,” he said. “But only movies like Gone with the Wind and Casablanca seemed popular. That was quite a shock to us, because that was going to be our model.”
It also created quite a quandary for Carter. It was cost prohibitive to obtain licensing to show newly released movies at the theater. After some careful thought, Carter decided on a trial run of showing recent box-office movies that were being released on home video as it was much easier and affordable to obtain licenses to screen films at that point of release. “We decided to make our first screening of the movie Inception, and it was a huge hit,” he said.
Not only does the Strand continue to screen movies that have been newly released to home video, it also offers a variety of live stage performances. Over the years, the theater has played host to Debbie Reynolds, John Oates (of Hall and Oates), the Celtic Tenors, B.E. Taylor and Broadway-credentialed performers. The theater has a 60-to-40 percent ratio of films to live shows.
One of the benefits of attending a show at The Strand is that there is no such thing as a bad seat in the entire house. No matter in which of the 267 seats patrons find themselves, the stage is within easy sight. “It’s great for fans to look some of these stars in the eye,” said Carter. “It’s a completely unique experience.”
The theater has enjoyed such success that Carter and the initiative are working toward phases two and three of the expansion project, which involves the construction of a stage house. The stage floor will be expanded, along with much needed wing and fly space, which will allow The Strand to present a larger variety of full-scale theatrical programs including musicals and symphonies. Dressing rooms, a private lounge and office space are also included.
A two-level parking deck is planned on the back of the property, along with a multipurpose space built on top to be used for Black Box Theater, dance and acting classes, and private functions. Phases two and three of the expansion project will allow The Strand to attract top-level talent and touring groups.
Carter estimates that the project will cost roughly $6.5 million and noted that the theater is seeking a corporate sponsor to help raise the needed funding. Naming rights for the stage house will be included with the corporate sponsorship deal.
“It took the initiative such a long time to raise $2.5 million on its own that we decided it would be wise to seek out corporate sponsorship in order to complete the final two phases of our expansion in a more timely manner,” said Carter.
Not far from The Strand is another well-known local theater. Situated on the campus of the St. Barnabas Health System in Gibsonia, the Kean Theatre has been lauded as a “baby Heinz Hall.” The 350-seat venue promises a spectacular view from any seat in the house.
Jim Lauteri, St. Barnabas’ marketing director, said that the theater had previously been used to host a variety of shows and performances. However, in recent years, St. Barnabas has begun renting the theater out to other organizations for a variety of events, including business meetings, recognition dinners, theatrical performances and recitals.
Lauteri said that the change was made out of necessity. “We determined that it was not a good fit for what we were doing at St. Barnabas as a retirement community, so we made the decision to turn the theater into a rental opportunity for outside organizations.”
He added that St. Barnabas has partnered with the Pittsburgh North Regional Chamber of Commerce to offer the Innovation Pittsburgh Speakers Series, which brings together industry experts to educate local business leaders on critical community issues, regional economic development and other issues affecting business. Lauteri said the chamber plans to offer four speakers as part of the program in 2018.
St. Barnabas also hosts a few of its own programs at the Kean Theatre, including a brain health conference held in 2017 that focused on prevention and treatment of memory care issues and conditions such as Alzheimer’s. “We’ve created some of our own events and will continue to do so, but it won’t be the bulk of what goes on in the theater,” Lauteri added.
The Strand and the Kean Theatre aren’t the only revitalized venues in the Pittsburgh region worth noting. Others include:
• The Tull Family Theater in Sewickley, which prides itself on being an arthouse film theater offering a variety of performances. The two-screen theater offers Oscar-nominated films, documentaries, foreign films and classics. Upcoming shows and ticketing information is available at www.thetullfamilytheater.org.
• Owned and operated by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, the Harris Theater is among the most active arts facilities in the Pittsburgh region. More information is available at www.trustarts.org/pct_home/visit/facilities/harris-theater.
• The Oaks Theater in Oakmont offers live music, old and new films, midnight movies, opera screenings and other events. Learn more at www.theoakstheater.com.
• The Palace Theatre in Greensburg seats 1,300 patrons and hosts music, dance and theater performance. It is owned and operated by the Westmoreland Cultural Trust.
More information is available at www.thepalacetheatre.org.