The shuttered Denis Theatre in Mt. Lebanon is a shell of its former self, although that might not be a bad thing.
The three-screen theater on Washington Road has sat idle since it closed – for the second and final time – in 2004, and some in the community are wondering why it is taking so long to reopen.
The old movie house has been stripped of the seats in each of its three theaters, and the long, sloping concourse where theatergoers bought tickets and popcorn is bare.
But that’s also providing a blank canvas that the Denis Theatre Foundation, a nonprofit formed in 2007 to save the building from the wrecking ball, is hoping will allow it to one day reopen as a community meeting hub and arts center.
“I see a building with space that people can do so many things they couldn’t do with just a theater in Mt. Lebanon,” said Alex Parrish, a Mt. Lebanon attorney who joined the Denis Theatre Foundation’s board in December. “There are so many possibilities.”
He believes early expectations from a decade ago when the foundation formed were “unrealistic,” whether it be the overall scope of the project or when it would open. The board still has high expectations, he said, and now has an architectural plan in place to use only the first floor for various community programs.
“Everyone asks why it’s taking so long,” Parrish said. “People are frustrated.”
But the progress inside has come a long way in recent years, as the foundation has been working to clean and maintain the building to prepare it for renovations, he said.
The movie house was built in 1938, so renovating the nearly 80-year-old building is more difficult than it would have been to demolish it and construct a new facility from the ground up. During its lifespan over the years, there has been a “hodgepodge of repairs,” Parrish said. But the sentimentality within the building has made it worth saving, he said.
“It’s an old theater,” Parrish said. “If you leave your car in the garage for a year, it’s not going to work.”
An architectural plan is in place to renovate the first floor. Initial hopes of using the second floor of the building have been temporarily put aside since the cost to install elevators to make it compliant with the federal American with Disabilities Act would make the project unaffordable.
So far, the foundation has raised $2.1 million for the project and spent about $900,000, some of it going toward the loan to purchase the building and the rest to clean and remove debris from the L-shaped structure that wraps from Washington Road to Shady Drive East. The foundation expects it will need a total of $2.5 million in the bank to begin renovations, meaning it must raise another $1.5 million before it can start.
That also doesn’t include a regular cash flow to keep the building operating after it opens.
To move forward, Parrish said the foundation has three goals that it is focusing on right now. First, and most important, is reopening the building as a multiuse facility for community meetings, art exhibits, live performances, youth programs and, of course, independent movies.
“It’s didn’t make it as a movie theater,” Parrish said, “so how could we make it work as that? It will be more than that and different.”
That would also be a “vibrant addition” to the Washington Road business district, according to Eric Milliron, who serves as Mt. Lebanon’s economic development manager.
“Anything that draws traffic and supports the restaurants and retail shops is a winner for us,” Milliron said. “We’re eager to see it have new life.”
But before that happens, the board must build on the foundation it has already laid with community outreach through various fundraising events, including the “Denis on Tap” mixer today at Mindful Brewing in Castle Shannon, along with a Reel to Real showing of “The Salesman” at the Washington Square Condominiums later this month.
While those events alone won’t raise the money needed to renovate and reopen the theater, they offer networking opportunities to engage the public on where the project stands and to solicit larger donations.
Milliron said the municipality has worked with the foundation over the past decade, and he has no concerns about the viability of the project.
“I think they’re working in good faith to expedite the project,” Milliron said.
Meanwhile, Parrish said the board believes the new Denis Theatre could be a community hub and economic driver for the township.
“The biggest change for Mt. Lebanon’s business district would be to restore and reopen as a usable space,” Parrish said.
For more information about the Denis Theatre or to purchase tickets for the “Denis on Tap” fundraiser at Mindful Brewing, go to www.denistheatre.org. Tickets are $50 and include a craft beer, light buffet dinner and a visit with the brew master. VIP tickets are $75 and include two beers, buffet dinner and a Mindful souvenir beer glass.