Theatre Historical Society relocates to Pittsburgh

Theatre Historical Society of America Hours: By appointment only Where: Senator John Heinz History Center, Strip DistrictDetails: 877-242-9637 or Sign up for one of our email newsletters.Updated 11 hours ago The Theatre Historical Society...

Theatre Historical Society relocates to Pittsburgh

Theatre Historical Society of America

Hours: By appointment only

Where: Senator John Heinz History Center, Strip District

Details: 877-242-9637 or

Sign up for one of our email newsletters.

Updated 11 hours ago

The Theatre Historical Society of America is dedicated to preserving the memory of America's theaters, big and small. They had such a great time in Pittsburgh at their conference in 2014, and felt so welcomed here, that they've moved their entire operation to Pittsburgh, from suburban Chicago.

It's now located on two floors of the Senator John Heinz Regional History Center's annex in the Strip District. Long-term plans include a free-standing museum of their own, somewhere in Pittsburgh.

The collection of photos, records and materials for almost 18,000 theaters was kept above the restored York Theatre in Elmhurst, Ill., since 1991.

“We didn't have any room,” says executive director Richard L. Fosbrink. “We couldn't fit anything more, physically, in the building. It was weighing on the floor joists. The building didn't have temperature and humidity controls.”

Ironically, the York Theatre helped price them out of the neighborhood.

“(Elmhurst) cited the theater as one of the reasons the downtown was blooming,” Fosbrink says. “It was impossible for our staff to live there — just too expensive. It was equivalent to a Mt. Lebanon.”

The Theatre Historical Society of America was started by Ben M. Hall, an author and editor for Time-Life Inc., who wrote a history of American movie theaters, “The Best Remaining Seats.” Hall was murdered in New York, and his collection of pictures, memorabilia and other materials was stored in the houses of members, and a church basement in Chicago, for decades.

“We did a conference in Pittsburgh in 2014,” says Fosbrink, 42, of Forest Hills. “Visit Pittsburgh, the Heinz History Center, Pitt, the Cultural Trust — everybody rolled out the red carpet. I had a conversation with (Pittsburgh Cultural Trust president and CEO) Kevin McMahon. He said, ‘Oh, you should move to Pittsburgh.'

“Ultimately, it came down to partnerships, the cost of living, and the cost of doing business. Pittsburgh just happens to have the greatest story — it's the birthplace of the commercial movie theater.

The first Nickelodeon movie theater was opened on Smithfield Street, Downtown, in 1905.

There's a little bit of overlap with the Heinz History Center's exhibits, but not a lot.

“We do discuss the Nickelodeon, and there are some artifacts from the first one that opened on Smithfield Street in 1905,” says History Center spokesman Brady Smith. “It's in the ‘Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation' exhibit, where we talk about firsts in Pittsburgh. The Nickelodeon is a important piece of Pittsburgh history— essentially the first movie theater.”

“I think it's great whenever an organization like this dedicate to preserving history moves to Pittsburgh,” Smith says. “The History Center's role is really just leasing them Smithsonian quality storage space in our Museum Conservation Center building. ... It's a good fit as far as we're concerned. It's humidity-controlled, pest-controlled, got security. We're happy to protect their collection and partner on this.”

“It's certainly fitting that they're here,” Smith says. “The city of Pittsburgh has a great history when your'e talking about theaters.”

One major obstacle to the move was convincing Theatre Historical Society members that they weren't moving just so Fosbrink could come home. Fosbrink grew up in Connellsville, went to Seton Hill University and taught at Central Catholic in Pittsburgh.

Film history is thick on the ground in Western Pennsylvania, even in Connellsville.

“That's the birthplace of Edwin S. Porter, who invented cinematography, did the ‘Great Train Robbery' (1903),” Fosbrink says.

The Theatre Historical Society didn't just pick Pittsburgh on a whim.

“We looked at 38 cities,” he says. “We sent out (requests for proposals) to the 38 largest cities in the U.S., and described what we were looking for. We got three responses. One neighborhood in Chicago. New York City's deputy of cultural affairs said, ‘You should move to New York, but we can't help you, and you need lots of money.' Same with D.C.”

So Pittsburgh it was. The collection now has room to grow, and a supportive host at the Heinz History Center that knows quite a bit about preservation.

“We know that we've got 18,000 theaters documented in the archives,” says Fosbrink. “Thirty to 40 years ago, we started creating a file for every theater that ever existed in America. If somebody clipped an article about Loew's Penn (now Heinz Hall) in 1969 and sent that in, then we would create a file and put that in it.

“There were probably 100,000 theaters in the U.S., over 200-some years,” Fosbrink says. “We'd like to document every theater that ever existed.”

Their collection includes about 50 separate collections, from a vast array of sources. There's the Loews collection from Loews movie theaters, which was about to dump their records in the trash when a Theatre Historical Society member intervened.

“All the construction documentation and photographs, including the Loews Penn in Pittsburgh,” Fosbrink says. “It also included stuff from their marketing offices, like Loews ‘Movie Memo' (to theater owners) — here's how you promote ‘Cleopatra' next week.”

Some collections are of a more personal nature, but are no less valuable.

“Fred Beal lived in Youngstown or Cleveland,” Fosbrink says. “He hopped on a train to Pittsburgh for a day and took photographs of all these theaters in 1948. That's a collection you wouldn't see — it wasn't published anywhere. There's cool shots of the Stanley Theater (now Benedum Center).”

The era of the grand movie palace was only a few decades, but it left its mark on American life.

“They built these giant movie theaters, because that was the technology of the time,” Fosbrink says. “We need to make it bigger to show movies, newsreels, stage shows all day long. Large theaters would have ballrooms upstairs, bowling alleys in the basement, nurseries. They were masters at using every square foot to generate revenue.”

Another interesting collection is the Balaban and Katz Corporate Collection, which includes all the reports that theater owners would fill out in the '20s and '30s — with the names of the films, shows performed, even how much electricity was used.

“Bob Balaban's (the actor) family — they were the big Chicago theater family,” Fosbrink says. “They pioneered the idea of these grand movie palaces, 2,000 to 5,000 seats. Barney Balaban sold it to Paramount and became President of Paramount Pictures.”

The classic movie palaces of the early 20th century are an obvious focus, but there are other things in the collection, too.

“A vast majority (of the collection) is centered around movie theaters, but we're interested in all theaters,” Fosbrink says. “In Pittsburgh, a lot of Carnegie Libraries have theaters. We had a sizable collection donated a few year ago that was from an architectural firm that did strip-mall modernist movie theaters in the 1970s.”

Normally, there's a staff of five, though it's down to three. A few didn't want to make the move.

Now, the case for historic preservation of classic theaters is fairly self-evident. Nobody thinks that investing millions in restoring the theaters that became the Byham, Benedum, Heinz Hall and the Palace in Greensburg was a mistake. Still, there are many, many more endangered theaters out there.

Ultimately, the Theater Historical Society of America could be a lot more visible in Pittsburgh, if all goes right.

“We do have bigger goals,” says Fosbrink. “We would like to build a national museum, a Theater History Center, in the same place where the birth of the commercial theater industry happened.”

Michael Machosky is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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