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Harris Theater projects 'colorful history'

Published: Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Updated: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 10:09


Joel Brewton

The Harris Theater is located on Liberty Avenue. It offers $3 movies for students and also is a photography gallery where Filmmakers students work is currently on display.

It was the roaring ‘20s and talkies and vaudeville shows were all the rage when its doors opened. By the turbulent ‘60s, taking a "peek" was the new fashion when it became a porn house with a ratty bed sheet for a screen. Today, the Harris Theater is owned by the Pittsburgh Cultural District and run by the Pittsburgh Filmmakers and a range of classic films including "The Wizard of Oz" are available for viewing on the big screen.

The Harris Theater on Liberty Avenue has been a source of visual expression for more than a century and is continuing to do so today, offering $3 movies for students, as well as a small photography gallery in the basement where Filmmakers students' work is currently on display.

Located on the edge of what would eventually become the Pittsburgh Cultural District, the Harris Theater was constructed in the 1870s. The majority of the building was destroyed by a fire in the 1920s and rebuilt as The Art Cinema. It was then that the eye-catching marquee was added in front of the building and the neon lights adorned the exterior. The deterioration of the building began in the 1960s when Downtown was a "red-light district," an urban area with a high concentration of prostitution or sex-oriented businesses. The building became a theater for pornography and the building itself began to fall into disrepair.

Ann Urwin, operations manager at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, remembers those days.

"At one point, there were no live theaters other than the porn theaters," Urwin said in an interview on Thursday at the Harris. "Even when I first moved to Pittsburgh, 19 years ago, you could still see prostitutes on Liberty Avenue. That has dramatically changed in the last 20 to 25 years, largely due to the Cultural Trust's efforts to transform Downtown to a more family friendly and arts friendly environment."

When the Cultural Trust was founded in the 1980s, it bought the building as part of a massive spending spree to generate economic development that gradually has turned the grimy, often crime-riddled, area into the city's Cultural District. When the developers bought the Harris, the former owners of the building still had a year left on its lease, "so the Cultural Trust was a landlord to a porn theater … which is kind of a contradiction," Urwin said.

The theater reopened as it is today in 1995. It was named after John P. Harris, the co-founder of the first movie house, The Nickelodeon. The Harris is currently leased by The Pittsburgh Filmmakers who use it for showings of various movies, as well as for the annual Three Rivers Film Festival. Gary Kabaly, director of exhibition at the Filmmakers, compared the operations of the Harris to a small business.

"It's not corporately driven, where individuals only do certain tasks," Kabaly said in a phone interview. "I think it's more of a mom and pop type of business where we only have a handful of staff and they all perform multiple functions."

Urwin said there are still people in Western Pennsylvania who remember the theater's colorful history, "but anyone who has been Downtown or works Downtown really knows how different it is."

Urwin went on to explain how the audiences that are attracted to the theater are mostly younger people who do not have much recollection of the days of Downtown being a dangerous place.

A select group of films has been playing intermittently every other month or so with the assistance of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. "The Wizard of Oz" has just finished its run at The Harris. Other past films that have also been shown include classics such as "The Godfather" and "Casablanca."

Point Park University students are able to purchase tickets at The Harris for $3 on any regular night. Jekeva Phillips, a senior cinema and digital arts major and who has worked there for almost three years, said it is an enjoyable place to go on any evening.

"It's a really fun place and there's a lot of nice people," Phillips said. "We get a lot of regulars."

The film currently showing at The Harris is "Inside Job." It has a nightly showing of 7:30 p.m. with an additional 5:30 p.m. showing on Thursday and runs until March 17. Nominated for Best Documentary Feature, this film dissects the financial crisis of 2008 and offers a front-row look at the industry of Wall Street. "Citizen Kane" will also screen from March 1 to 3.

"It's a collaborative project between us at the Filmmakers and the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership all trying to have The Harris seem like a neighborhood theater for the people who live down there," Kabaly said. "It's not simply a signature movie theater. If you live down there it would be ‘your' movie theater or ‘our' movie theater."

The downstairs gallery is open to the public during all movie showings and features photographs from various artists. The gallery also has a small lounge space with chairs and couches.

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