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Cinema fans preserve local old-school movie houses

By Craig Smith
Thursday, February 7, 2008

When an opportunity to buy the movie theater she used to frequent as a child came up six years ago, Meg Burkardt and two friends jumped at the chance.

Burkardt, Cyndi Yount and Marc Serrao, all of Penn Hills, bought the Oaks Theater in Oakmont with one goal in mind: preserving a dying breed.

“This is definitely a labor of love,” Burkardt said.

The Oaks has avoided the fate of most of the neighborhood movie theaters that once dotted this area’s towns.

“This is an area where you had a lot of Main Streets, and many of them had a theater. One of the main casualties on Main Street has been the theaters,” said Al Tannler, director of collections at the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.
The Oaks, which opened in 1938 and seats 430, “rounds out the community,” said Bob Cooper, president of the Oakmont Chamber of Commerce.

Interest in preserving old movie houses has grown over the past decade.

The Denis Theater in Mt. Lebanon, which has been closed for about 20 years, was bought by newly elected Commissioner D. Raja, who is studying how best to use the building.

The Strand in Zelienople will reopen later this year after a $1 million face-lift, said its owner, Ron Carter, 40, of Cranberry, who plans to eventually convert the theater into a performing arts center. The theater opened in 1914 as a silent movie house and vaudeville theater.

The Web site Cinema Treasures was launched eight years ago to help preserve movie theaters. The site links “movie theater owners and enthusiasts in an effort to help save the last remaining movie palaces across the country.”

In the early days, movie theaters would open at 10 a.m. and close at 11 p.m., said Michael Aronson, assistant professor of English at the University of Oregon and author of a soon-to-be-released book on the early days of movies in Pittsburgh.

“Some people would go after work. It was an alternative to going to the saloon,” he said.

The social aspect of going to the movies made them stand out, Aronson said. “It wasn’t just what was on the screen.”

Today, neighborhood movie theaters are luring customers with lower ticket and concession stand prices.

The January reopening of the Hollywood Theater in Dormont has added an extra draw to the business district, attracting patrons to nearby Potomac Avenue and its restaurants, merchants said.

The Bradley Center, an agency serving children with mental, emotional and developmental disabilities, reopened the 300-seat Hollywood for second-run films.

Dan Bahur, 50, of Pleasant Hills got his start in the “movie biz” as an usher when he was 16.

“My friends were working at theaters and I got a job. I got sucked in and never left,” said Bahur, manager of the Hollywood, where he worked 20 years ago. He came back when he heard the theater was reopening.

The theater, which opened in 1933, has undergone extensive renovations to its lobby and projection booth. The theater is Dolby-digital capable and has new seats.

“We have a really good theater here. We have an awesome place to see a movie in,” Bahur said. ” ‘Ben Hur’ on a 19-inch screen is a lot different than on a 30-foot-screen.”

The Hollywood has been a hit with neighbors.

“It’s so nice to have a theater in your neighborhood. A lot of people walk to it,” said John Maggio of Dormont. With its single screen, “you don’t hear other movies in the other rooms.”

The Ambridge Family Theater got its start in the late 1960s in a former sewing machine store.

“This is a great little business. It’s not going to make us wealthy by any means,” said Glenda Cockrum, who bought the theater with her husband, Rick, about 10 years ago.

The theater is involved in the community, and often hosts Scout troops or high school groups. Cockrum said she was bitten by the “movie bug” while working as an assistant manager for Carmike Cinema.

Her own theater is a little smaller. It seats 134.

“We used to have four movie theaters in Ambridge. This is the only one left,” said Mayor Carl “Buzzy” Notarianni, who saw “Serpico” and “The Ten Commandments” at the theater.

It’s a family operation. Cockrum handles booking, advertising, painting and the box office. Her husband is the projectionist, plumber, electrician, computer programmer and bookkeeper.

For the Cockrums, who have four children, simple economics dictated their plans to buy the theater.

“It was cheaper to buy the theater than to take the kids to the movies each week,” Glenda Cockrum said with a laugh.

Craig Smith can be reached at or 412-380-5646.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633