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Roxian (Theater) Ready for Start of Renovation

Thursday, July 29, 2010
By Brian David, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When Andrew Hieber saw a “for sale” sign on the Roxian Theater in McKees Rocks, he had an instant vision.

A musician, he knew the local concert scene. A longtime restaurant worker, he knew entertainment. As the owner of a martial arts and fitness gym, he knew business. As a native of The Rocks, he knew what lower Chartiers Avenue had once been. And as a lucky early investor in America Online stock, he even had a bit of money.

“I had always looked at the Roxian as a great music venue,” with nice acoustics and a size that slotted neatly between the clubs and the stadiums, he said. Built in the late 1920s as a movie theater and used for every conceivable stage show since, the Roxian was well-worn but structurally sound. Mr. Hieber figured he could slap on some paint, work his connections and start bringing in mid-level touring bands.

That was 2004. The vision has taken a couple of beatings since. “I don’t get excited anymore,” Mr. Hieber said. “I got really excited five years, six years ago, and it just got me frustrated.”

But if he starts feeling the rush again, it is excusable — the grand old theater is in the process of being gutted in the first phase of a renovation that should have it open by next year.

The plan is to open a side wall to create space for ticket booths and a new entrance, refurbish the main floor with a new bar area and removable seats, raise the stage for safety and better sightlines and replace the 285 balcony seats with 225 seats sized for modern rear ends. The building is also getting an elevator, new wiring, plumbing and ventilation systems, new bathrooms and new light and sound systems.

In all, the cavernous space — five floors on a 27,000-square-foot footprint — will be able to hold 1,500 for a concert, but also will be able to function cafĂ©-style for banquets, receptions and smaller shows.

In some ways, all this is possible because of the first beating that was administered to Mr. Hieber’s dream six years ago.

When he inquired about buying the building, he was put in touch with an old Sto-Rox schoolmate, Taris Vrcek, who had recently taken on leadership of the McKees Rocks Community Development Corp. Mr. Vrcek told him the Community Development Corp. was acquiring the building and already had someone lined up to be owner/operator of the theater business.

But he promised to keep Mr. Hieber atop the list if anything happened, and when the original operator bailed out six months later, he gave Mr. Hieber a call.

The next blow came when Mr. Vrcek said the community corporation would rent him the building, but would not sell it.

“I said, ‘Why should I rent it from you when I can own it myself?’ ” Mr. Hieber said. “But he waved the carrot of nonprofit grant money in front of my nose.” The Community Development Corp. could get the kind of support that no for-profit business could.

The final blow made the necessity of that arrangement clear; architectural studies showed that to meet code, the theater would need an elevator and bathrooms with 42 toilets, far beyond what it had. “That kind of tore down my dream,” Mr. Hieber said.

Mr. Vrcek, however, was undeterred. He had a strong vision of what lower Chartiers could be, and the redeveloped Roxian was “the game-changer, the catalyst for the rest of the strategic plan,” he said.

“Bring 1,000 people in here several times a week, imagine what that would do. It would really give us a chance to market some beautiful old buildings.”

The neighborhood already has Hollowood Music Center, a music store with a regional clientele, and the Roxian is catty-corner from the Father Ryan Arts Center, a nonprofit facility that supports visual and performing arts.

Mr. Vrcek sees other clubs and restaurants sprouting, capitalizing on the arts-centered theme. “The Roxian could really make this a destination of choice,” he said.

Mr. Vrcek spent years obtaining a $500,000 grant from the state Department of Community and Economic Development and a $250,000 county grant. He also brought in Dennis Stasa, owner of the McKees Rocks company Penn Interiors, as a private partner. The company is doing the renovation work and will have an ownership stake.

Mr. Hieber described Mr. Stasa as “a visionary” when it comes to the building’s interior. “He’s sure when he’s done with this that he’s going to end up on the cover of Pittsburgh Builder magazine.”

The full flow of Mr. Stasa’s vision may have to wait a while, though. Mr. Vrcek said the focus for now is on getting the building ready for effective use as a concert venue, with the “extra bells and whistles” to follow as money is available.

That puts the current focus on the building’s mechanicals and on bringing the main floor and main stage up to standards.

The “bells and whistles” could be a lot of fun, though, because the building is a maze of half-hidden rooms, like a real-life “The Phantom of the Opera” set.

There are rooms flanking the stage along the back wall, stacking up to the ceiling. These were delicately referred to as “sleeping rooms” in the theater’s club days and could be used as “green room” space for artists.

Mr. Hieber envisions opening a small restaurant in a room above what is now the entrance and a cigar bar in an identical room above that. There’s a lounge between the two entrances that was, until recently, adorned with hanging beads and disco posters. The projection room still holds the original projectors — huge machines from the dawn of the movie era.

And then there’s the basement, a huge space previously used as a sports and dance bar; Mr. Hieber envisions a similar use in the future.

“I’ve been through the building probably 20 times,” Mr. Hieber said, “and every time I find a new space I didn’t know about.”

And standing in the empty, dusty darkness of the main floor, he betrayed the fact that the excitement really is still there.

“It’s going to be awesome,” he said.

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