While taking a stroll through his Lawrenceville neighborhood one day, Brian Mendelssohn thought to himself, “You know what would be fun? To open up a movie theater!”
The 40-year-old isn’t a fan of suburban multiplexes or the Hollywood blockbusters that keep them in business. Art house theaters specializing in obscure films don’t appeal to him either.
“Just because it was made in the Netherlands or has pseudo-indie actors in it doesn’t mean it’s good,” he says with a laugh.
So, when a Butler Street building went on the market, Mendelssohn, a real estate developer by trade, decided to create a destination for movie lovers.
After major renovations to the dilapidated five and dime, which was erected in 1864, Row House Cinema opened in June 2014 to rave reviews. In addition to a single-screen, stadium-style theater, the structure houses a snack bar, six apartments, the restaurant Smoke, and Bierport, a craft beer mecca.
Each week, a six-person committee comes up with a different movie theme, ranging from Hitchcock and anime to Schwarzenegger and surrealism. The group tries to strike a delicate balance between tried-and-true flicks that are guaranteed to attract patrons (“The Princess Bride,” Mendelssohn’s favorite movie, always packs them in.) and riskier selections such as “Pi”, a Darren Aronofsky film about a math-obsessed genius.
Earlier this month, Row House celebrated the career of late director – and longtime Pittsburgher – George A. Romero with screenings of his classic horror films, a scavenger hunt and zombie make-up demonstrations. Kid-friendly fare rolls most Saturday mornings (a cereal bar is included in the ticket price) and, in mid-November, Row House will host the Pittsburgh Cat Film Festival.
The eclectic mix draws a younger (between the ages of 25 and 35), predominately female crowd, which, Mendelssohn says, is unusual for an independent theater. Video-on-demand services such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are keeping a lot of millennials at home.
“We don’t want to recreate the living room,” Mendelssohn says, referring to multiplexes that offer reclining seats and a waitstaff that delivers drinks and full dinners directly to them. “We’re more interested in creating a cinematic experience. If you’re a lover of movies or if you want to become a lover of movies, that’s why we’re here.”
In Oakmont, just a few miles up the Allegheny River from Lawrenceville, sits The Oaks Theater. When it was built in 1938, a top-of-the-line sound and projection system, as well as air conditioning, made it the most technically advanced theater on the East Coast. The art-deco style marquee boasts 200 feet of neon and 266 incandescent bulbs.
And while films are still an integral part of The Oaks, a 2014 renovation project expanded its entertainment offerings.
“Our programming is a mix of movies, music, magic, comedy, lecture and educational series and more,” Program Director Joe Wichryk II says.
The Beaver County native caught the theater bug at 15 years old when he joined The Cellar Dwellers, a sketch comedy group. He later trained at The Second City Conservatory Program for Improv and Acting, started a weekly show called FN’ Improv (currently in its 14th season) and co-founded the group Hustlebot, which won the inaugural Steeltown Film Factory screenwriting award for the short film “Roll The Dice”.
Wichryk moved to Oakmont three years ago to oversee theater renovations, which included a complete rewiring of the building, updated electrical service to accommodate live performances, a revamped seating area and the installation of a full-service bar and stage.
National acts such as The Wailers and David Allan Coe have rocked The Oaks along with local bands. The theater also hosts virtual ghost tours of Pittsburgh, beer and wine tastings, dueling piano players, open jam sessions, awards ceremonies, film festivals and trivia nights.
“We do a wider variety of performances and we try to feature local films, not just big box office films,” Wichryk explains. “We also try to maintain a standard of excellence in service and entertainment that one would have experienced during the Golden Age of Hollywood.”
While both Wichryk and Mendelssohn agree that running an independent theater has its disadvantages – paying for film rights and equipment repairs is a costly endeavor – they are happy to offer the movie-going public more than just a typical night at the movies.