The Denis Theatre, a longtime South Hills institution that has been closed for almost two decades, is one step closer to becoming a new destination for film fans, history buffs and anyone out for an evening on the town.
Once reopened, The Denis will boast three theaters, a restaurant and a bar. The facility will be leased to Row House, which will manage its operations.
Row House Cinema Owner Brian Mendelssohn says the collaboration has been a few years in the making.
“Row House Cinema was looking for a new location to be able to do more interesting things beyond what we were doing in Lawrenceville because of our limited capacity,” Mendelssohn says.
Row House, which opened in 2014, is known for the creative programming at its single-screen theater on Butler Street. Each week’s film presentations feature a new theme. On Sept. 1, the month begins “Wes Fest” featuring films by Wes Anderson. The theater also hosts Brew & View events (movies with themed beers), a Cereal Cinema series (morning movies with all-you-can-eat cereal bars), lectures and film festivals.
“We also thought that having a second theater would be a lot of fun and a tremendous asset to Pittsburgh. When we were looking around, we stumbled across the Denis Theatre team, and they invited us to have a good conversation with them about partnering,” Mendelssohn says. “We spent a lot of time with them over the last two years to figure out what that means and what we would do with The Dennis …. It was just born out of expanding what we do.”
The Denis Theatre opened on June 1, 1938, under the ownership of the Harris family. One of the Harris brothers, John, was a co-owner of Pittsburgh’s first film theater, the Nickelodeon on Smithfield Street. The Denis was named after John’s brother. Originally, the theater had a singular, ornate stage and auditorium with seating for about 1,000 patrons, Mendelssohn says, but the space was eventually split into three theaters.
When the iconic theater was closed in 2004, the nonprofit Denis Theatre Foundation purchased the building to one day restore the property and continue its legacy, according to Jon Delano, president of the Denis Theatre Foundation’s board.
“I think it’s fair to say that many of us in the South Hills grew up going to the Denis Theatre,” Delano says. “I’m old enough to remember paying 35, 50 cents on a Saturday morning to see cartoons. So it will be a very emotional moment to reopen the Denis Theatre.”
The foundation is raising funds online in order to renovate the theater, which Mendelssohn says is currently a shell — though the exterior is complete, the interior is completely gutted. When complete, the Denis will feature a large auditorium with seating for 300, along with two smaller adjoining theaters with seating for 70 in each.
The smaller theaters will be Row House-esque, according to Mendelssohn.
Mendelssohn estimates that $8 million is needed to fund just the construction efforts. Once that goal is reached, construction — which will take about 18 to 24 months to complete — will begin.
The renovated theater will be equipped with digital and film projectors to show modern and classic films.
Delano says there will be screenings of independent, foreign and first-run films with physical space for talkbacks, panel discussions on films and social issues, or anything else Row House or the Denis Theatre Foundation might dream up.
“The Denis Theatre Foundation has hosted … a variety of programs on the environment, on racism, on immigration, cutting-edge programs with local experts to discuss what’s going on,” Delano says. “We’ve been doing that online, via Zoom, but this will give us a venue for that kind of a program which isn’t exactly film, but is important to the community.”
In order to achieve the theater’s goal, the support of the community, government and local businesses is necessary, Delano says. The Denis accepts donations through its website.