In 1922, movies were still quiet and many movie theaters were grand. The Manor Theater was no exception, with its two-story ceilings, ornate décor and 1,500 seats, including those on the balcony. The Palace of Cinema on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill opened on May 15 of the same year with the melodrama ‘Hail the Woman’.
One hundred years later, the Manor is still in business as Pittsburgh’s oldest operating movie theater. And it’s celebrating with a special week-long festival of classic films – one from each decade, from ‘Casablanca’ to ‘Get Out’, and also, fittingly, ‘Hail the Woman’.
“It’s quite an achievement to have a theater in operation for 100 years, except for a slight closure during a pandemic,” said longtime owner Rick Stern.
Stern would know that better than anyone. He grew up in Squirrel Hill and remembers “going there on Saturdays for 17 cartoons…and spending the afternoon there, you know.”
In 1969, his father, Ernest Stern, and a cousin, George Stern, expanded their already large holdings of local cinemas by purchasing the Manor. This was the days before multiplexes, when downtown Pittsburgh had several movie theaters — most owned by the Sterns — and many neighborhoods had their own movie theaters as well. For four decades, starting in the 1930s, Squirrel Hill alone never had fewer than three theaters.
Rick Stern joined the family business after college in the early 1970s. With the exception of a few years in that decade and another period from 1987, the Manoir has remained in the family ever since. . Stern’s company, Stern Enterprises, has owned the theater since 1992, and it has continued to show a distinctive mix of Hollywood films and art, including many independent and foreign-language releases that don’t play elsewhere in the city. .
“It’s great fun for me. It’s kind of like a hobby,” said Stern, who was also a top restaurateur in Pittsburgh. “It’s the company I grew up in, and it’s kind of near and dear to my heart.”
Although it is far from being the oldest cinema in the country, the Manor is one of the few elites to have survived the arrival of television – whose advent, in 1948, marked the beginning of a precipitous decline in cinema attendance – with multiplexes, digital streaming services and even a pandemic.
The pandemic, of course, posed the biggest recent threat to the Mansion, which, like most other theaters, was closed for much of 2020 and 2021. But Stern says audiences have started to return.
“We are very lucky. We have a very loyal customer base,” he said.
Other old Pittsburgh theaters currently in operation include the Hollywood Theater in Dormont, which opened in 1925, and Downtown’s Harris Theater, which screened its first film in 1931. Other movie palaces built in the 1920, like Downtown’s Loews Penn (1925) and Stanley Theater (1928), ceased to operate as a full-time movie theater decades ago. The Loews is now Heinz Hall and the Stanley is the Benedum Center, although its original neon sign still adorns one side of the building.
While the mansion’s distinctive English Tudor-style house has changed little over the years, the theater itself has changed. In 1978 it was split into two smaller theatres, and in 1992 Rick Stern split it again into four – both times to compete with the multi-screen suburban theaters that had dominated the industry since the 70s The mansion’s last renovation a decade ago added a bar and the ability for ticket buyers to bring drinks into the screening rooms.
The centenary festival will allow the public to revisit films that the public could have seen during the history of the Manoir. The likes of “His Girl Friday” and “Singin’ In The Rain” will spin in rotation with “The Godfather”, “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Pulp Fiction” and “The Departed”. (The festival will occupy only one of the Manoir’s screening rooms, the others will continue to show films in progress.)
“You never know when you’ll be able to see some of these classics on the big screen again,” Stern said.
For more information on the theater and the festival, see here.