Mt. Lebanon theater project creates buzz
By Craig Smith
Thursday, May 1, 2008
“It’s a great community project that will light the spark for more economic development in the region,” said Mt. Lebanon Commissioner D. Raja, who purchased the Denis Theatre on Washington Road in November to keep it from being converted to an office complex.
Raja has signed a 15-year lease to rent the building to the Denis Theatre Foundation, which announced plans Monday to revive it.
The Denis will reopen as an art house, showing independent and foreign language films, and documentaries. It could be a venue for lectures, film series, student productions and cultural events. A church has expressed interest in conducting services there.Since word of the plan first started circulating around the community, “the buzz has been amazing,” said Joe Rovita, owner of Empire Music and president of the Uptown Business Association.
The Denis opened in 1937 as a one-screen moviehouse with a capacity of 1,200. Ownership changed repeatedly over the next six decades, before Raja bought it last year. The 11,000-square-foot theater closed in 2004.
Raja, of Bangalore, India, is co-founder of Computer Enterprises Inc. He and his wife, Neeta, bought the property in November for $668,750, real estate records show.
Renovating the theater will be a huge project, said Anne Kemerer, executive director of the Denis Theater Foundation, which hopes to raise the $3 million in government grants and private donations.
“Time has not been kind to the Denis,” she said. “There is water damage, vandalism, some outdated equipment.”
The theater’s marquee, which is not salvageable, lies in pieces in the lobby. Its basement is filled with 70 years’ worth of accumulated theater equipment.
But officials are optimistic the renovated theater will bring people to Mt. Lebanon.
“Because Mt. Lebanon is a walkable community, the theater has great potential,” said Dan Woodske, Mt. Lebanon’s commercial district manager.
Theaters can draw people to Main Street in the evening and on weekends — two key periods that have been lost to the malls, Woodske said.
“Very few stores stay open past 5 or 6. There’s nothing right now to bring a steady flow on the weekends,” he said.
A number of old movie theaters in the Pittsburgh area have been preserved, including the Oaks Theater in Oakmont, The Strand in Zelienople, The Hollywood Theater in Dormont and the Ambridge Family Theater in Beaver County.
Craig Smith can be reached at email@example.com or 412-380-5646.