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Row House takes over Dormont's Hollywood Theater with plans for upgrades

Inside the Hollywood Theater in Dormont.
Courtesy of Row House Cinema
Inside the Hollywood Theater in Dormont.

Business has been booming at Row House Cinema in Lawrenceville, according to Kelsey Zehmisch, the marketing director.

The movie theater is already earning more money than it did before the pandemic. But it’s located in a 16-foot-wide, 84-seat theater space. So there isn’t a lot of room to expand.

Row House’s owner, the developer Brian Mendelssohn, was interested in buying The Regent Square Theater when it stopped operating in 2019. But he lost out to the nearby Concept Art Gallery, which purchased the building in 2021 for $325,000, with its own plans to expand.

Zehmisch said that Row House reached out again a few months ago when it heard a rumor that the Hollywood Theater in Dormont might not survive either. The roughly 300-seat theater has been operated as a side-project by the nonprofit Theatre Historical Society of America. It largely shows new Hollywood films. Row House, by contrast, tends to show older movies, run special events and rent out its theater for parties.

But this time Mendelssohn was able to work out a deal for Hollywood; Row House is scheduled to close on the building this month, with plans to start operating the theater on Oct. 1. That’s when residents can come visit the theater for an open house and see architectural plans for the new space. The tentative plan has been in place for a few months, but the announcement was made on Tuesday.

“It was like the worst kept secret,” Zehmisch said.

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The expansion of Row House is part of a larger trend of small, independent theaters growing and expanding, Zehmish said. Row House announced last week that it’s also working with a nonprofit in Mt. Lebanon to restore and then eventually operate the Denis Theater. “We were at a conference this summer and we heard multiple repertory theaters talking about opening second locations,” she said. “So, in some ways, it feels like we're part of a larger movement of people going back to the theater.”

The Hollywood Theater was originally built in the “atmospheric style,“ Mendelssohn said, with a painted ceiling and lights that evoked a European night sky. The new design will riff on that idea by creating a theater that looks like the set of the film Metropolis. There will be a revamped entrance, with additional food and drinks. And the renovated theater will be able to show 70 mm films, which hasn’t been possible in the Pittsburgh area, Zehmisch said.

“The next time Christopher Nolan makes a movie and tells everybody to watch it on 70 millimeter, Pittsburgh can actually do that,” Zehmisch said.

The new theater will also renovate a now defunct bowling alley that used to operate in the basement. And in its place, Row House will have individualized rooms where 10 to 20 people can rent out space for a private viewing, play video games or sing karaoke, while getting food and drink service.

Renovations will begin in 2024, but Row House will give residents a taste of the kind of offerings that will be available starting in October. The theater is already planning to show “Donnie Darko” with a special talk by the director, as well as a presentation of David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” that will feature a musical performance from an artist featured in the film. They are already selling tickets for a Halloween special, ZombieFest, a Holiday sing along and a sci-fi film festival. And the theater will continue to be the local host for Rocky Horror Picture Show events.

Row House Cinema’s website now has an option to look at offerings at its Lawrenceville or its Dormont locations. The company will operate separate Instagram accounts but single Facebook and X, formerly known as Twitter, accounts.

Kara Walsh, a board member for the nonprofit Dormont Arts — and also the wife of Dormont’s mayor Jason Walsh — said the theater has been central to life for Dormont residents for a long time and hopes the new ownership will continue to open up the space for events and game nights. Walsh said she and her husband had their first date at the theater in 2008 and watched the Wizard of Oz there while nine months pregnant.

“It’s more than just a movie theater to Dormont, it’s a community place,” Walsh said. “I’ll walk down the street and, if I see the doors are open or the lights are on, I’ll go and say hi and a lot of people do that.”

The hope is that the new theater will become a destination for visitors who will also want to eat at the nearby restaurants, such as Moonlit Burgers or Dor-Stop, or buy a book at Beyond Bedtime Books, according to Dormont Borough manager Ben Estell. Visitors could ride the T light rail train for a movie and have a few drinks, he said, without worrying about parking or driving home.

The private ownership of the theater will also begin to generate tax revenue for the borough again, although Estell said that’s not the main interest in Dormont, a bedroom community. “The point of the business district isn't necessarily for the success of the businesses, but to provide a great mix of options for our residents,” Estell said. “And this is just another step in that process of making things even better for Dormonters.”

Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.