The Era of Northside Theaters
Hello… My name is Bill Gandy and I run the Allegheny City Historic Gallery. Allegheny City is now known as the Northside of Pittsburgh. I decided to do a consolidation of the theaters this time. First of all, I couldn’t find one. Secondly I was curious about the few theaters that I knew about. It turns out that there were many more than I expected. First I’m going to give you a little bit of history about the evolution of the industry.
The first theaters were born out of Nickelodeons. The viewing machines were called Kinetoscopes and Mutoscopes. They were not projectors. The Kinetoscope was created around 1889 or 1890. It worked by the shutter opening and closing at high speed using a roll of film. The Mutoscope was patented by Herman Casier on November 21, 1894. It worked like a flip-book. The earliest Nickelodeon machines were available in peep shows. Porn and naughty situations dominated their usage. Eventually the viewing machines caught on with the general public and offered other themes. You would find them in general storefronts.
The first movie theater in the world was actually created here in Pittsburgh. On June 19, 1905, Harry Davis and John P. Harris opened the first storefront dedicated to showing projected pictures. It was called the Nickelodeon and was located at 433 and 435 Smithfield Street. It had 96 seats and the cost was 5 cents per patron.
The Kenyon Theater — The oldest theater on the Northside was the Kenyon. It was built in 1909 by Thomas Kenyon and designed by William Kaufmann. It was located at 819 Federal Street. The theater was on the corner of Federal and Erie Street. Erie Street was mostly destroyed during the Allegheny Center Mall project in the late 1950’s however there is a small piece of it on the North side of Allegheny School. If you stood there and look East towards Federal Street, it would give you perspective on the theater’s location. The theater did not actually open until December 23, 1912. The Kenyon had 1 screen and 1644 seats.
The Garden Theater — Next up is the famous and infamous Garden Theater located at 12 North Avenue. The theater was financed by David E. Park and designed by architect Thomas H. Scott in 1914. The theater was built in 1915. It boasted 1000 seats. Some of the movies out at this time was “The Tramp” featuring Charlie Chaplan and W.C. Fields made his debut from Vaudeville to silent films. Bennett Amdursky purchased The Garden from Park’s son in 1924 and ran it until 1970. In 1973 the adult film “Deep Throat” played there. For the next 34 years it was an adult film theater. It closed in 2007. Attempts to save the structure have been successful but the theater has been gutted out.
Arcadia Theater — The Arcadia was located at 823 East Ohio Street. About where 279 is right now. I’ve seen pictures of it online and in one, you can see Laverty’s Jewelers which is still there today. It had 1 screen and 575 seats. I haven’t been able to find too much information on this theater but it closed around 1959.
Brighton Theater — The Brighton Theater actually had two locations. The original location was 1810 Brighton Road. It opened on December 18, 1917. It was a silent screen movie house. The capacity was about 750. It was razed in 1928 to make way for the extension of Irwin Avenue. The New Brighton Theater was located at 1739 Brighton Place. That’s the corner of Brighton Road and Columbus Avenue. It was built by Harry and Sam Fleishman, the owners of the former Brighton Theater. The building had an Art Deco design. There was also a 10-lane bowling alley on the third floor. It was a family-run business and Harry continued to operate it until the early 1960's.
Perry Theater — The Perry Theater was located at 2900 Perrysville Avenue. It opened on September 2, 1938. The marquee was shaped like a boat with a classical Deco-Style. The external surface was given an enamel iron treatment intended to offset the effects of Pittsburgh’s smoke and soot. The theater was managed by James Balmer who worked for the John P. Harris Cooperation. It officially closed on Wednesday April 29, 1959 with the movie “ The Journey” featuring Yule Brenner according to a Pittsburgh Press article. It was used as an annex to Perry High/Traditional for a while. The old theater was demolished in October 2013.
The Atlas Theater — The Atlas Theater was located at 2603 Perrysville Avenue. I’ve seen a photo of this theater in an old newspaper ad. It was a gorgeous small theater with beautiful columns in the front. The Atlas had 1 screen and 450 seats. In 1916 when it opened, admission was 10 cents for adults and 5 cents for children. The theater closed in 1953.
Paramount Theater — The Paramount was located at 3240 Brighton Road. It opened on November 20, 1920. It was called the American Theater from 1920–1929. I really don’t know much about this theater except that it closed in 1958. I believe that it also turned into an auto body shop.
Novelty Art Theater — The Novelty Theater was located at 217 Federal Street. In 1910 it originally opened as the Royal Theater. In 1921 it changed it’s name to the Novelty Theater. It had 1 screen and 550 seats. On September 13, 1963 it became an adult movie theater. I don’t know the exact closing date at this moment.
Century Family Theater — The Century Family Theater was located at 701 East Ohio Street. It opened in 1915. It had one screen and 300 seats. The theater showed mostly westerns and serials. It closed in 1957.
The Northside Theater — The Northside Theater was located at 100 Federal Street. It opened in 1943 and was part of the Harry Davis Enterprise. The theater had 1 screen and 600 seats. I’ve seen a beautiful picture of this theater from the City Photographers Collection. In 1946 a double-feature was 15 cents. The Northside Theater closed in 1952.
The Hippodrome — The Hippodrome was in Manchester. It was located at 1624 Beaver Avenue. It opened in 1914 as the Imperial Theater. The theater was managed by Tom Eicholz and presented Vaudeville shows until 1917. It had 1 screen and 900 seats. The Hippodrome closed on September 9, 1960.
The Northside Drive-In Theater — The Northside Drive-In had it’s grand opening on November 15, 1963. It was an indoor and outdoor theater. It had 1 screen and could accommodate 700 cars and 300 patrons indoors. The Drive-In was located Geyer (Williams) Road at Lamar Street. It was over the Southern hill of Northview Heights. In the late 1970’s the Drive-In began showing pornographic movies with no regard for it’s proximity to Northview Heights. The Northside Drive-In closed in 1981.
I found this interesting side-note while searching the web to consolidate the theaters. Here is a list of theaters on the Northside that had pipe organs at one time: Paramount Theater, Brighton Theater, Perry Theater, Atlas Theater, Hippodrome Theater, Kenyon Theater, Novelty Theater, Arcadia Theater & Century Family Theater.