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Elegant Vaudeville-Era Theater in Dormont to be Razed

By Chris Ramirez
Thursday, June 10, 2010

Demolition is taking place at West Liberty and Dormont avenues as the former South Hills Harris Theatre bites the dust. Once the elegant backdrop for countless Vaudeville acts and live-action performances, it will soon be gone, much to the dismay of local historians. It was built in 1927 and opened in 1928. Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review

Harris moviehouse’s heyday long past, CVS now owns property, hit by vandals, in disrepair.

The final curtain is coming down on the old South Hills Harris Theatre.

Broken windows, stained walls and a partially collapsed roof are all that remain of the once-regal theater on West Liberty Avenue. Soon, the one-time hot spot will be demolished to make way for a pharmacy.

“It’s sad news, as far as I’m concerned,” said Muriel Moreland, president of the Dormont Historical Society, “It’s such a shame because it’s a beautiful building. It’s just one more thing that’s going down, going away.”

Long before there was Dolby Sound, multiplex theaters and six-story IMAX picture screens, there were entertainment houses like the South Hills Harris Theatre, which was the backdrop for countless Vaudeville acts and live-action performances.

It was built in 1927 and opened in 1928. Watching a production there was an experience.

Ushers in tuxedos and white gloves guided theatergoers of the 1930s and 1940s through a main lobby illuminated by the shimmering light of a crystal chandelier. There was no Dolby Sound. For many years, audiences heard just the music of Bob Mitchell, tickling the keys of a Wurlitzer pipe organ.

The site was converted to show motion pictures and short films, including pro-military spots that became popular during World War II.

After years of operation, the theater closed in 2001. Pharmacy giant CVS bought it, along with a corner property and two houses surrounding it, Moreland said. All of them are to be razed, she said.

Despite several fundraising campaigns and efforts to find new owners, the building has been cordoned off from public access, fallen into disrepair and become a magnet for vandalism and animal infestation.

The interior has been gutted. The organ has since been sold to a theater in Ohio. And no one seems to know what happened to the chandelier that greeted theatergoers when they entered.

“One part of it (the theater) is already pretty much rubble,” Moreland said.

Nancy Fenton chronicled the building’s lapse into disrepair over the years, snapping photos of her childhood getaway while walking her dog.

She was a child living in Brookline when she and friends went to see “Psycho” at the theater in the 1960s. “We always made sure we got to sit in the balcony,” said Fenton, 63, of Dormont. “It was like a big opera house.”

Walking there was part of the fun. Coming home later that night was more frightful after sitting through the thriller that “just about did us in,” Fenton said.

“The two houses that were by it had these bushes and trees that used to have branches that were hanging over the sidewalk we’d take to get back home,” she said. “That was spookier than the movie.”

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

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