Brookline Boulevard Movie Theatres
Back in the first half of the 20th century, most Pittsburgh neighborhoods had a local movie theatre. For several years, there were two theatres located on Brookline Boulevard. They were called the Boulevard Theatre and the Brookline Theatre.
From 1921 through 1952, these second-run movie houses were highly successful and made it possible for the residents of Brookline to see many of the most popular Hollywood releases without having to go to one of the main premier cinemas in downtown Pittsburgh. These theatres also featured some of the more popular bands and theatrical shows of the time.
The Brookline Theatre (1921-1939)
Construction of the Brookline Theatre, located at 732-734 Brookline Boulevard, began in late-1920. The building was built on land owned by the German Beneficial Union District #506 at a cost of $90,000.
When it opened on March 28, 1921, the Brookline Theatre was considered a state-of-the-art facility that included a large stage, one movie screen and a maximum capacity of 500 seats. The theatre was run by Managing Director T.A. Gilbert. The House Manager was A.F. Hulsman.
This was during the final years of the silent film era and the theatre was equipped with a permanent four-piece orchestra. The opening attraction was "To Please One Woman, starring Clair Windsor, " followed by "Hush," "All Souls Eve," "The Master Mind" and "The Last Of The Mohicans."
The building also contained a large banquet hall which became the official lodge of the local GBU#506 branch, an organization now called the Greater Beneficial Union. In 1924, the theatre secured access to the screening of Paramount Pictures films, which helped boost patronage. With the stage shows, movies and GBU functions as a draw, the Brookline Theatre quickly gained a spot as one of Pittsburgh's vintage movie houses.
On March 31, 1926, The German Beneficial Union sold the building to Anton Hajek, who five months later sold it to Jacob Altman. On October 26, 1927 the building traded hands again, this time sold to Kaufman Realty, who retained control of the theatre for the next eleven years.
During this time, the theatre and banquet hall became the original headquarters of the Brookline Chapter of the Pittsburgh Press Seckatary Hawkins Club, part of a nationally renowned children's organization. The Club sponsored movie outings at local theatres that raised funds for Child Welfare groups throughout the area. The Press clipping shown below was published in November 1931.
The Seckatary Hawkins Club met at the Brookline Theatre weekly until November 1937, when they moved their local headquarters to Warner Brothers new Boulevard Theatre, located a short distance away along the 800-block of Brookline Boulevard.
On May 10, 1935, the Brookline American Legion Post#540 moved their headquarters to the theatre banquet hall, where it remained until 1940. The building was also used by other community organizations like the Women's Civic Club, Brookline Boosters Association and the Roosevelt Club of Brookline for social gatherings and movie screenings.
The newspaper clipping below, from December 23, 1935, shows how the Women's Civic Club and the Brookline Theatre manager arranged free admittance to underprivileged kids during that Christmas season.
Fire at the Brookline Theatre
On the evening of April 7, 1933, a fire broke out in the projection room during a feature presentation. There were 200 movie-goers in attendance, including a city fireman, who was the first to notice the smoke.
The local firefighter, with the help of Jack Prague, 15, of Rossmore Avenue, and Jack Taylerson, 17, of Gallion Avenue, quickly directed the audience safely to the theatre exits. The fire caused $400 damage.
The Warner Brothers Years
In 1938, the movie house was leased to Warner Brothers, who were establishing a large chain of neighborhood theatres in the Pittsburgh area. The theatre was upgraded with new sound equipment and projectors.
On October 15, 1938, the new Brookline Theatre celebrated it's gala grand opening with a double feature. The movies shown that day were the recently-released action crime drama "When G-Men Step In," starring Don Terry, Julie Bishop, and Robert Paige, and the 1929 western classic "The Law Of The Plains," starring Tom Tyler.
The Community of Brookline now had two Warner Brothers movie theatres along the boulevard, located only one block from each other. The Boulevard Theatre, at 808 Brookline Boulevard, had been in operation for almost a year, since November 10, 1937.
Pittsburgh Press and Post-Gazette movie advertisements list showtimes for the Brookline Theatre, along with the neighborhing Boulevard Theatre, from October 15 to November 3, 1938. After that timeframe, only the Boulevard Theatre is posted. All mention of the Brookline Theatre disappeared from print.
On March 9, 1939, the building was bought back by the German Beneficial Union, who took control of the banquet hall. Warner Brothers retained the lease to the theatre and the storefronts at the front of the building were leased to the Realty Rental and Sales Company (732) and to Ralph Lograss (734) for a barber shop. Warner Brothers then converted the theatre and storeroom into a screening room and distribution center.
The End of the Movie Era in Brookline
On March 11, 1947, Warner Brothers purchased the building from GBU and retained control for the next twenty-four years. In early-1971, Warner Brothers ended their Brookline affiliation and, on December 23, 1971, sold the vacant building to James and Dorothy Pantelis.
The next tenant was the Salvation Army who leased the building for use as a Thrift Store. After the Salvation Army lease ran out, the building stood empty for a few years until, in the late-1990s, it was used first as campaign headquarters and then as the office of former State Representative Michael Diven.
Ownership changed hands again on December 20, 2002, then again on September 29, 2003 and January 4, 2007. The last owner of record is Naim Mansour, who purchased the historic structure on February 12, 2013.
Some years after Warner sold the building, a lowered ceiling was built in the spacious main hall, converting it into modern office and retail space. This cut off most of the old theatre, which can be seen only by going to the second floor. There it remained, isolated and removed from view, relegated to an attic-like storage space above the first floor ceiling.
This is the way the interior space was structured in 2007, when the building was leased by Leo Hughes and converted into the popular Brookline Pub and Restaurant. The attached storefronts along the boulevard are leased out to other independent merchants.
Images From Inside the Old Brookline Theatre
Like the other nearby Brookline moviehouse, the Brookline Theatre building still retains many reminders of it's past. The stage area is easily identifiable, with wall painted white for use as a movie screen. The decorative arched-tin ceiling and light fixtures are still in place, and the projection room is still there. The equipment has long since been removed.
Uncovering the Past
When the theatre was remodeled by Warner Brothers in 1938, a dark burlap-type material was placed over the rear wall to improve the sound quality in the hall. Along the wall were several openings for stage lighting and projector openings. This burlap covering remained in place for the next seventy-seven years.
An interesting discovery was made in February 2015. While examing the back wall of the theatre, the shop owners noticed something painted behind the wall covering. When the burlap material was removed, it exposed a long-forgotten decorative mural.
The colorful painting covered the entire back wall where the projection room was located. It depicts a snowy mountain scene with buildings and trees. The windows of the buildings are cut out and form the projector openings. It is quite unique, and possibly a remnant of the days when the hall was the meeting place of the German Beneficial Union.
The Brookline Pub expanded the restaurant section of their establishment with a new balcony area. The ceiling was refurbished with new lighting fixtures and the colorful mural was restored, making it a unique visual attraction for diners and a vintage throw-back to the old Brookline Theatre
The Boulevard Theatre (1927-1952)
The Boulevard Theater was built in 1927 by real estate developer and contractor George F. Wadsworth. Located at 808 Brookline Boulevard, it was originally called The Braverman, an independently owned community theatre and meeting hall.
In April of 1929, the Wadsworth family lost control of the building through a sheriff's sale and Fidelity Title and Trust acquired the deed of ownership. In 1937, Warner Brothers leased the theatre and converted it into one of their growing chain of neighborhood movie houses.
Renamed the Boulevard Theatre, the movie house was upgraded with the latest sound equipment and modern projection equipment. Henry Burger was reassigned from the Hollywood Theatre in Dormont to manage the new enterprise.
The gala opening of Warner Brother's Boulevard Theatre was held on November 10, 1937. On that first evening the feature presentation was "Varsity Show," starring Dick Powell. The entertainment bill also included Fred Waring and his orchestra.
The theatre had one screen and over 550 seats. It was in operation daily for fifteen years. In addition to the theatre, there was also a bowling alley in the basement. Local schools often took groups of students to see plays and watch shows during the day.
Burger was the first in a succession of managers at the Boulevard Theatre. Over the years, others who held the position include Jimmy Laux, Art Letender, Dave Smith and Ray Laux.
On November 23, 1937, Fidelity Title sold the building to Warner Brothers, who in turn sold the title to North Eastern Theatres on February 11, 1939. Warner Brothers reacquired ownership in 1940 and retained it for the next twelve years.
Seckatary Hawkins Club
Another South Hills group that frequented the Boulevard Theatre was the Seckatary Hawkins Fair And Square Club. Formed in 1918 and based upon a set of novels, short stories and cartoon strips by Robert Schulkers, the Seck Hawkins Club was quite popular among children in Pittsburgh. Members were referred to as Rangers and Rangerettes.
The Pittsburgh Press was one of the national newspapers who carried the Seckatary Hawkins cartoon strip and helped sponsor local Seck Clubs. The newspaper employed an actor, Ed Ritenbaugh, who played "Seck" from 1930 through 1950. Ritenbaugh would host five parties and movie outings for Seck Hawkins Club members in Pittsburgh theatres every week. Many of these gatherings were held at the Boulevard Theatre.
During World War II, the Rangers and Rangerettes of the Seck Hawkins Club were involved in scrap metal collection, defense stamp drives and Victory Garden rallies throughout the city.
Many of these rallies were held in Brookline, and manager Jimmy Laux of the Boulevard Theater often hosted the events, with all children gaining free admittance to see a feature film. Club members were encouraged to bring a few pounds of scrap metal, or to sell defense stamps to cover their admittance to the shows.
This photo appeared in the October 7, 1942 Pittsburgh Press. The caption read:
AMERICAN RANGERS AND RANGERETTES of the Press Seck Hawkins Club in the Brookline District brought scrap metal and rubber to the huge Brookline Business Men's Association bin on Brookline Boulevard. Later in the day the boys and girls were guests of Manager Jimmy Laux at the Boulevard Theater. Director-Secretary Barbara Blakely of 961 Fordham Avenue, district leader, is shown at the right. Seck Hawkins chapters everywhere are out to bring in thousands of tons of scrap metal and rubber to help Uncle Sam.
The group would meet at the Brookline firehouse, then parade down the boulevard to the theatre, oftentimes with a band leading the way. The program was a huge success, and the events at the Boulevard Theatre consistently ranked as some of the city's biggest contributors to the ongoing defense drive.
After the war, the club continued to host events around the city, including at the Boulevard Theatre. The club's charitable focus switched from supporting the defense effort to helping various Child Welfare organizations.
Fire at the Boulevard Theatre
On October 4, 1948, a large group of hearing-impaired students from DePaul Institute attended a free matinee at the theatre. They had just finished watching cartoons and were awaiting the feature show, "The Locked Door," which was about their school.
During the intermission, a small fire broke out in the sub-basement of the theatre and spread to the bowling alley located below the main floor. As smoke began rising into the auditorium, the 400 students were led out safely, orderly and very quietly, using sign language.
Local firemen from Engine Company #57 were summoned and quickly extinguished the flames. The theatre reopened later that afternoon and the DePaul students were brought back the following week to see the much-anticipated show.
Fond Memories of the Boulevard Theatre
The Boulevard Theatre was a big part of the lives of many children and teenagers in Brookline. Fred Proie reminisced about one hot summer day:
"I remember my girlfriend and I taking the long walk to the Brookline News Stand, where they displayed a sign outside, saying the store was "air-conditioned". We'd walk in there just to get cool."
"Sundays was always the day to go to the afternoon movies. We'd save fifteen cents just for that occasion, buying a five cent candy bar at the corner drugstore first, so that we could enjoy it during the movie."
"I remember when a tax of one cent was put on the ten cent ticket fee. I'd spent five cents on the candy bar, and had only ten cents left. When I got in line, someone told me I needed eleven cents, so I ran all the way back home to Templeton Street and got the extra penny."
End of an Era
The Boulevard Theatre closed on July 10, 1952. The final presentation was a double feature, the Abbott and Costello hits "Noose Hangs High" and "Africa Screams."
The closing of the theatre marked the end of an era here in Brookline as both of the community's vintage movie houses were now a thing of the past. Brookliners now had to venture to nearby Dormont, or downtown Pittsburgh, for the cinema experience.
The building that housed the Boulevard Theatre was sold to the Cedars of Lebanon Lodge for use as a meeting and banquet hall. After over fifty years as the club lodge, the group sold the building. It was leased for several years by Compulink Networks, and for the past few years has been converted into a combination restaurant, bar and nightclub.
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Vestiges of the Former Moviehouse
Inside the building, there are still many reminders of it's glory days as a movie house. The stage and much of the peripheral ornamentation is still there. The projector room still houses two vintage movie projectors, weighing nearly a ton apiece. The owner of the structure made a point of retaining as much of the old theatre as possible.
Although it has been over six decades since a feature length movie was shown at the old Boulevard Theatre, a trip up to the projector room and a little imagination can provide a nostalgic look back in time to the days when movie stars were larger than life and a family night at the movies for Brookliners was only a short walk away.
* Other Neighborhood Theatres Close To Brookline *
For those who were not around during the heyday of the Brookline and Boulevard Theatres, the Hollywood Theatre on Potomac Avenue and the South Hills Theatre on West Liberty Avenue, both located in nearby Dormont, provided the opportunity for Brookliners to walk to the theatre and see the latest top blockbusters on a second-run basis.
Long ago, Dormont also had the Delton Theatre, a silent movie house and home to a variety of stage shows. The old theatre ceased operation in 1928, but we're sure it attracted patrons from Brookline.
The Denis Theatre, on Washington Road in Mount Lebanon was another nice theatre only a short drive away. These three nearby theatres enjoyed wide popularity throughout the years. Although the South Hills Theatre is no longer there, the Hollywood Theatre and the Denis Theatre are still in operation.
The Hollywood Theatre (1933-present)
The Hollywood Theatre, located at 1449 Potomac Avenue in Dormont, first opened it's doors in 1933. Two years later the theatre became one of Warner Brothers chain of neighborhood movie houses. For many years in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the Hollywood Theatre, with it's seating capacity of 980, was one of Stanley Warner’s main second-run neighborhood houses in Pittsburgh, and even enjoyed a brief spell as a first-run house in the late 1960’s.
Beginning in the late-1970s, the Hollywood theatre was sold to a succession of ownership groups. Like the South Hills Theatre a few blocks away, the Hollywood began to suffer from the emergence of the multi-screen mega-theatres popping up around the suburban malls. The financial struggles continued into the 1990s, and in 1998 the historic theatre was closed.
Efforts were made to preserve the historic Dormont theatre. After a nine year wait, the Hollywood Theatre was re-opened, on March 30, 2007. The remodeled theatre was operated by residents from the Bradley Center's Mount Lebanon facility. The seating capacity was reduced to 300 seats. Unfortunately, the Bradley Center closed it's local subsidiary a year later. With no one left to staff the theatre, the doors were again closed on May 25, 2008.
A grass-roots effort immediately began to reopen the theatre. After a year of hard work by the Friends of the Hollywood Theatre, a non-profit organization, the Dormont movie house staged it's third grand opening in seventy-six years on June 27, 2009. Extensively refurbished and handicapped-accessible, the theatre features a balcony, a large concession area, a grand lobby, and spacious, comfortable seating in the auditorium.
The Hollywood Theater is one of the last surviving single-screen movie houses in Pittsburgh. It provides movie-goers an opportunity to experience a nostalgic look back at a by-gone era when the local theatre was the place for a family outing, a romantic interlude or just an enjoyable night at the movies. And, it's still only a brisk walk or a short drive from Brookline.
To see whats happening at the
On January 16, 2018 it was announced that the Pittsburgh-based Theatre Historical Society of America, whose mission is to keep the legacy of historic movie theaters alive, had entered into an agreement with Hollywood Partners LLC, to purchase the Hollywood Theatre. The building will continue to be a working theatre while serving as a headquarters for the society staff and an exhibition space for pieces from the society's vast collection. The society also has an archive of thousands of artifacts and photographs housed in a climate-controlled space at the Heinz History Center.
The South Hills Theatre (1927-1998)
The South Hills Theatre, once located at 3075 West Liberty Avenue in Dormont, opened in 1927. It was one of a chain of neighborhood theatres owned by the Harris Amusement Company.
At the time it was considered one of the most luxurious theatres outside of the City of Pittsburgh. The theatre hosted vaudeville shows and second-run feature films. In 1930, Harris sold the South Hills Theatre to Warner Brothers.
For several decades the South Hills Theatre, with it's one screen and 900-seat capacity, was a popular destination for movie-goers. It enjoyed lively success in the 1950s and 1960s.
The theatre was purchased by Associated Theatres in 1960 and was remodeled in 1969. Four years later, a 1927 Wurlitzer* theatre pipe organ was installed. It rose from center stage on a hydraulic lift and was played before feature presentations.
As the move towards larger multi-screen mega-theatres began in the 1980s, the South Hills Theatre saw a drop in attendance and began to struggle financially.
The theatre was sold in 1988 and a move was attempted to attract large theatrical stage presentations. This plan was unsuccessful and, in 1994, the theatre was remodeled and subdivided into four mini-theatres, each with a 175-seat capacity. The name of the theatre was changed to Cinema 4. The last movie was shown in 1998.
The building was sold again in 2000. A year later, the structure was condemned as a fire hazard and shut down. Attempts to secure funds to preserve the historic theatre failed and, in June 2010, the once-grand 83-year old South Hills Theatre was demolished.
* NOTE: Most of the theatre organs in Pittsburgh were lost in the Flood of 1936 or fell into disrepair and were scrapped. The Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ that was located at the South Hills Theatre was sold in 1988. A vintage 1926 Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ, a rare piece of American history, is located at Keystone Oaks High School.
The Delton Theatre (1914-1928)
Another Dormont Theatre that was in business for just fifteen years was the Delton Theatre, which opened in 1914 at the corner of West Liberty and Illinois Avenue. It was home to silent movies and stage shows. There was also a bowling alley and billiards room located downstairs. The building at 2885 West Liberty Avenue is now the site of Jackson Hewitt Tax Service and a bar/restaurant.
The Denis Theatre (1938-present)
The Denis Theatre opened in 1938 and is located at 685 Washington Road in Mount Lebanon, only few short miles from Brookline. The 11,000 squarefoot theatre was owned and operated by the Harris Amusement Company. The grand, one-screen movie house, with a large open mezzanine, had a seating capacity of over 1,200. The movie house was named after Denis Harris, the son of Senator John Harris, whose company owned a number of theatres in and around Pittsburgh, including the first-ever Nickelodeon.
The Denis enjoyed a several decades of success as a first-run movie house. In 1960, the theatre was sold to Associated Theatres, along with the South Hills Theatre in Dormont. Five years later, the open mezzanine was closed off and a second auditorium built, known as the Denis Encore. The new theatre opened as the first art house in the South Hills. The Encore was equipped with larger seats and a modern decor.
In 1968, the Denis got the exclusive first-run in Pittsburgh of the movie "The Graduate," starring Dustin Hoffman. Billed as art film, the film played for twenty-five weeks, with lines of movie-goers regularly stretching around the corner and down Albert Street. The movie went on to blockbuster status when it moved on to the mainstream theatres.
The theatre underwent a conversion to a four-screen movie house in 1981. The main Denis auditorium is “twinned,” and the projection booth relocated to the front of the balcony. The remaining balcony area was converted into a small auditorium. It was now considered the Denis Quad Theatre.
Despite the challenge of competing with the new generation mega-theatres, the Denis continued to see success into the 1990s. It was briefly closed in 1994 for upgrading of the carpet, seats and restrooms. Then, to the chagrin of South Hills residents, the once-mighty theatre fell on hard times. Drops in attendance and other financial issues caused the owners to close the theatre in 2004.
There were plans to raze the old building and erect a new office complex, but concerned citizens blocked the initiative. In 2007, the non-profit Denis Theatre Foundation was formed. The focus of the group was to purchase, renovate and reopen the theatre.
With help from the Pittsburgh Foundation and an anonymous donor, the building was eventually purchased by the group in 2010. A $2.5 million dollar renovation, including a complete overhaul of the deteriorating infrastructure, was completed in 2013. This allowed for the opening of one film screen.
A further $2 million investment will complete the project and turn the new Denis Theatre into a three-screen cinema. The primary focus of the cinema will be as an art house, showing independent, foreign language and documentary films. The theatre will schedule mainstream movies as well.
To see whats happening at the
The Pittsburgh Press' Ed Ritenbaugh hosted movie screening events for South Hills children at the Hollywood, South Hills and Denis Theatres, as well as the Brookline and Boulevard Theatres, during his term as General Seckatary of the Seck Hawkins Fair And Square Club's Pittsburgh chapter.
Seck Hawkins was one of the most beloved child cartoon characters of this time period, and the message in his books, short stories and cartoon strips was always encouraging children and young teens to work hard to overcome difficulties with the help of their friends.
The Rangers and Rangerettes of the Seck Hawkins Club remember fondly their weekend adventures at these vintage South Hills neighborhood theatres. Below is one of the Seck Hawkins cartoon strips that ran in the Sunday Pittsburgh Press on November 8, 1931.
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