This will be the first weekend since 1936 that the Squirrel Hill Theater (the one on Forward) won't be an option for moviegoers. The theater closed this week; its third-generation owner, Richard Stern, announced on Wednesday that the revenue just wasn't there.
Admittedly, the Squirrel Hill was never the best place in town to catch a movie; even the Stern-owned Manor, up Murray, always seemed more welcoming. (In the way of most neighborhood moviehouses, both were originally one-screen palaces, later subdivided to compete in the multiplex age.)
Even after it was renovated a decade ago, the place always felt a little on the dog-eared side. Some of the screening rooms were too small for the screens they contained. And then there were the bowling balls thundering away overhead at adjacent Forward Lanes, audible in some screening rooms. Depending on your perspective, and probably what you were watching, the din either complemented or ruined the audio of whatever you were watching.
Still, the staff were always friendly, and the prices were reasonable. Moreover, for those who prefer to patronize local, independent merchants in real, live neighborhoods, rather than cineplex conglomerates in mall-land, the Squirrel Hill was one of the last options.
Pittsburgh, like every other city, was once awash in neighborhood theaters. Even when I moved here, in 1991, there were still a few, including the Rex, on the South Side (before it turned to live performance), and a second-run joint in Bloomfield. The Manor and Pittsburgh Filmmaker's Regent Square Theater are about the only full-time first-run places left.
Still, while the Squirrel Hill's closure reduces our options about where we can see movies, it probably doesn't greatly affect what we can see. The theater did program some artier fare: The last thing I saw there, for instance, was Wes Anderson's The Fantastic Mr. Fox. It was one of my favorite movies of 2009, and the Squirrel Hill was at that point the lone first-run theater in town still screening it. But most of the time, you could find most of the same movies over the hill at the Waterfront.
It would be easy to blame the theater's demise on the Waterfront, or the rise of Netflix, and those no doubt played a part. (Though Netflix surely has done more damage to Pittsburgh's home-video landscape, which used to boast several indie outlets alongside a couple chains, but now seems to be down to just Dreaming Ant and a lone Blockbuster.)
But as the article in yesterday's Post-Gazette points out, numerous big vacancies in Squirrel Hill's business district can't have helped traffic at the theater: Poli's, around the corner, closed a few years back, and up the street the Panera and the big Barnes & Noble closed in just the past six months.
Ironically, for months now, many Pittsburghers had already thought the Squirrel Hill doomed because of a large planned commercial real-estate project on its block that would have displaced it. That project has yet to come to fruition; according to the P-G, neighborhood leaders say it's moribund. But the theater is lost anyway, and the local movie landscape is that poorer for it.