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A Short History of Theatres
in Pittsburg
 
 
 

Energetic, business-minded men and women founded Pittsburg in 1876. As it developed into a first-class city, the need for an outlet of entertainment became evident. By the early 1880's, this void was filled by the arrival of Charles Hunter.
Hunter, who owned a circus, had been traveling across the South performing in every major city. However, by 1880, he had become tired of the wandering life. Hunter decided that Pittsburg had a great deal to offer him, one of the main things being the abundance of hay, needed to feed his menagerie, at relatively cheap prices. Consequently, he settled with his one-ring circus, a variety of wild animals and one hundred horses.
Pittsburg became the winter quarters of his circus. In order to make money during the off-season, Hunter built an amphitheatre on the corner of Third and Locust. This became the city's first permanent showplace.
The front of the building was circular in shape with a ring inside and raised platform seating for the audience. Since there was no heating, there was always a rush to arrive first so one could get the seats nearest the coal stoves. The lack of heat did not keep people away from the shows; they just added extra layers of clothing and bundled up.
Hunter's amphitheatre met with great success for many years. When Hunter got out of show business in the late 1890's to become an osteopath, he closed the amphitheatre. The building became dilapidated and in 1908 was torn down. In its place, Hunter built the Crescent Hotel.
In addition to the shows presented at Hunter's Amphitheatre, traveling companies such as the Chicago Comedy Company were presenting shows in various buildings, including the auditorium in the city hall at Fourth and Pine.
One of the more unusual attractions during this period was the Wonderland Dime Museum arrived in November of 1888. This show place was over the store of Larrimer and Donnelly on the east side of Broadway between Third and Fourth. The dime museum was defined as a place charging ten cents admission, which along with shows exhibited freaks and monstrosities. One of their main attractions that year was billed as "a living skeleton weighing only 40 pounds."
The museum was an instant success, having to turn people away every evening. It not only had strange curiosities, it also had comic theatrical performances. The entertainment the museum provided helped the people get through the winter, while they were waiting the opening of their newest and largest entertainment venue, the Rhodes Opera House that opened April 1889.
In 1887, before the opera house could be built, Playter petitioned the city to build a sewer system. He needed a good sewer system to make sure that the opera house would be of the utmost elegance and modern capacity. In March 1888, an agreement was signed between the city, Playter and Rhodes whereas the city would build a modern sewer system along Broadway and Playter and Rhodes would build a modern opera house. The three-story building was built on the northeast corner of Fourth and Broadway. The first floor contained the Manufactures Bank, of which Playter was a stockholder, with the shops on the south side of the building containing Playter's abstract offices, a millinery and a dry goods store. The second and third floors contained the opera house stage, seating and balconies. The Rhodes Opera House as it was called opened on April 1,1889. It became an instant success and would become one of the major theatres on the traveling circuit. It even had a resident reporter of the New York Dramatic Daily Mirror who would write reviews of the shows and send them to New York to be printed. W. W. Bell who had been running a wallpaper and paint business with his brother, became the manager of the new Opera House.
In 1901, Bell leased an old horseracing track, called Forest Park, east of West Fourth and south of the Hull & Dillon Meat Packing Company. Forest Park had opened in 1890, but had fallen in disrepair by the time Bell leased it. He cleaned it up and built a platform stage on wheels that would be pulled in front of the grandstand where performers would present their shows. He also added concessions, benches, walking trails and a small zoo of wild cats and bears to the park. To make sure that patrons could get to the new park, Bell succeeded in getting the Pittsburg Railway Co., to extend a rail line to the park from Fourth and Broadway.
During this time, Bell also remained the manager of the Opera House, but in 1903 he decided that Pittsburg needed a much larger theatre venue where the new entertainment phenomenon ‘moving pictures’ could be shown along with larger stage shows. He resigned from the Opera House and with William Braden, a local livery stable owner, organized the Pittsburg Amusement Company and began building a new theatre on the northeast corner of Fourth and Locust.
Construction on the new theater, which would be called the La Belle Theatre, began in the spring of 1903. Bell closed Forest Park after the summer season of 1903 and dismantled most of the buildings and used that wood in the construction of the new theater. The La Belle, which opened on May 9, 1904, had a 34’ by 63’ stage and a seating capacity of 1600.
The opening of the La Belle and the popularity of moving pictures resulted in the Opera House closing at the end of the 1905 season. The building at Fourth and Broadway was totally remodeled, inside and out, erasing all visible vestiges of the old opera house.
Even though the La Belle became the premier place for entertainment in Pittsburg, the opening of new venues didn’t subside. The Lyric, an outdoors theatre opened on the northwest corner of Ninth and Broadway in 1905. The Nickel Theatre opened in 1907 at 208 S. Broadway across the street from the Frisco Depot. Also in 1907, the Wonderland Theatre opened at 414 N. Broadway. Bell, who had sold his interest in the La Belle in about 1906 and organized a new theatre management company and purchased the Lyric, enlarging it and reopening as the Airdome Theatre
Other theatres owned and operated by Bell and his new associates included the Bungalow (1915) at Euclid and Broadway, the Broadway Theatre (1914-1915) at 524 N. Broadway and the Garden Theatre (1915-1917) at 110-112 W. Fifth. Bell would eventually sell off his theatre interests and leave Pittsburg in 1919, settling in Terre Haute, Indiana with his new theatre advertising business. The La Belle Theatre would change ownership and names in 1912 and would burn down in November 1915.
The Wonderland Theatre at 414 N. Broadway, was owned by W. H. Daly and local businessman E. H. Klock who operated a grocery store in the building south, and opened in 1907. In 1908 it became the Vaudome Theatre and in 1911 the building that housed the theatre and Klock’s store were torn down and a larger facility was built which would become the Electric Theatre. It then became the Klock Theatre in 1919 as the sister theatre to the new Colonial Theatre which was built across the street in 1920. In 1926, the Fox Company purchased the Klock Theatre along with the Colonial and the name was changed to the Midland Theatre, which remained open until 1958 when it was closed. The building was torn down in 1973.
Other theatres in Pittsburg during the heyday of Vaudeville and the early days of movies many of which opened and closed within their first years or soon after. They included the Crystal Theatre (1910-1913) at 314 N. Broadway, the Grand Theatre (1914-1930) at 307 N. Broadway, the Stardome Theatre (1912-1913), the Mystic Theatre (1914-1920) at 122 E. Fourth, the Palace Theatre (1912-1920) at 420 N. Broadway and the O’Joy Theatre at 1025 E. Fourth.
In March 1920, the Colonial Theatre opened at 409 N. Broadway and soon become the premier showplace in Pittsburg. After it was purchased along with the Midland in 1926 by the Fox Company, they became exclusively show houses for the Fox studio movies. The name was changed to the Fox Theatre in 1958 and would remain open until 1984. The building sat empty for years until in 2007 a new non-profit group called the Colonial-Fox Foundation purchased the theatre, got it listed on the state and national historical registers and are currently in the process of restoring the theatre.
In 1930, the Cozy Theatre opened at 213 N. Broadway. It was renamed the Cinema Theatre in 1969 and burned down in 1984.
Since Pittsburg became a city in 1876, there have been about 30 different theatres that brought the great entertainers, shows and movies to be seen by its citizens. This part of the website attempts to give a little more insight into what was being seen by our parents, grandparents and great grandparents in a time when the theatre was the place to be on a Friday or Saturday night.

 

 
updated April 25, 2008
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