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Arts, Sports & Culture

Marquee name: Pittsburgh's oldest movie theater celebrates a century of film with a festival

squirrel hill manor movie theater film.jpeg
Katie Blackley
/
90.5 WESA
The Manor Theatre, seen here in 2021, opened in 1922.

In 1922, movies were still silent, and many movie theaters were grand. The Manor Theatre was no exception, with its two-story ceilings, ornate décor and 1,500 seats, including those in the balcony. The movie palace on Murray Avenue, in Squirrel Hill, opened on May 15 of that year with the melodrama “Hail the Woman.”

One hundred years later, the Manor is still in business as Pittsburgh’s oldest continuously operating movie theater. And it’s celebrating with a special week-long festival of classic films — one from each decade it’s been around, from “Casablanca” to “Get Out,” and also, appropriately enough, “Hail the Woman.”

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“It’s quite an accomplishment to have a theater continuously operating for 100 years except for a slight closure during a pandemic,” said long-time owner Rick Stern.

Stern would know better than anyone. He grew up in Squirrel Hill and recalls “going there on Saturdays for 17 cartoons … and kind of spending the afternoon there, you know.”

In 1969, his father, Ernest Stern, and a cousin, George Stern, expanded their already-extensive holdings of local movie theaters by buying the Manor. Those were the days before multiplexes, when Downtown Pittsburgh had several movie theaters — most owned by the Sterns — and many neighborhoods had their own moviehouses, too. For four decades, starting in the 1930s, Squirrel Hill alone never had fewer than three theaters.

Rick Stern joined the family business after college, in the early ’70s. Except for a few years in that decade, and another stretch starting in 1987, the Manor has stayed in the family since. Stern’s company Stern Enterprises has owned the theater since 1992, and it has continued to show a distinctive mix of Hollywood fare and artier films, including many independent and foreign-language releases that don’t play elsewhere in town.

“It’s a lot of fun for me. It’s kind of like a hobby,” said Stern, who also has been a prominent restaurateur in Pittsburgh. “It’s the business I grew up in, and it’s kind of near and dear to my heart.”

Though it’s far from the oldest movie theater in the country, the Manor is one of an elite few that have survived the arrival of television — whose advent, in 1948, marked the beginning of a precipitous decline in movie attendance — along with multiplexes, digital streaming services and even a pandemic.

The pandemic, of course, posed the biggest recent threat to the Manor, which like most other theaters was shuttered for much of both 2020 and 2021. But Stern says audiences have begun to return.

“We’re very fortunate. We have a very loyal clientele,” he said.

Pittsburgh’s other old theaters currently operating include the Hollywood Theater, in Dormont, which opened in 1925, and Downtown’s Harris Theater, which showed its first film in 1931. Other movie palaces built in the 1920s, such as Downtown’s Loews Penn (1925) and the Stanley Theater (1928), ceased to function as full-time cinemas decades ago. The Loews is now Heinz Hall, and the Stanley is the Benedum Center, though its original illuminated sign still graces one side of the building.

While the Manor’s distinctive, English Tudor-style home has changed little through the years, the theater itself has. In 1978, it was divided into two smaller theaters, and in 1992, Rick Stern subdivided it again, into four — both times to compete with the multi-screen suburban theaters that have dominated the industry since the ’70s. The Manor’s latest renovation a decade ago added a bar, and the opportunity for ticket-buyers to take drinks into the screening rooms.

The centennial festival will give audiences a chance to revisit films that audiences would have seen during the course of the Manor’s history. The likes of “His Girl Friday” and “Singin’ In The Rain” will run in rotation with “The Godfather,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Pulp Fiction” and “The Departed.” (The festival will take over just one of the Manor’s screening rooms; the others will continue to show current movies.)

“You never know when you’ll be able to see some of these classics on the big screen again,” said Stern.

For more information about the theater and the festival, see here.