The landmark Denis Theatre on Washington Road has sat empty and silent since closing its doors 15 years ago when, like many independent movie theaters, it succumbed to competition from the multiplex. Since purchasing the building in 2010, the Denis Theatre Foundation has struggled to make headway with planned renovations. But now the foundation says it’s just $1 million away from beginning construction to reopen the theater.
The foundation has so far raised $2.7 million of the $5.2 million needed to renovate the cavernous, 15,000-square-foot art-deco theater, built in 1938.
The foundation envisions the Denis not just as a theater but as an arts hub with spaces dedicated to film screenings, educational and community programming and visual arts displays. There will be room for socializing, too, with a lounge area serving food and drinks that will open out onto Washington Road to allow for outdoor seating.
“What this really comes down to is reimagining a 1930s era theater as an independent film and cultural arts center for a 21st century community,” says Roycroft Avenue resident Alan Trivilino, chair of the Denis Theatre Foundation’s board of directors.
“When we have the next $1 million in funding raised, we’ll begin construction,” says Trivilino, a senior vice president at PNC.
The Denis Theatre Foundation has encountered many challenges and setbacks since its formation in 2007, and Trivilino is aware that some community members and contributors are frustrated with the slow pace of the project. “For a number of years the volunteers of the Denis Theatre Foundation soldiered on without a full-time executive director or with professional fundraising counsel,” Trivilino explains.
But the foundation has recently brought on help to speed things up. A revamped leadership team has hired full-time, professional fundraising counsel, focusing on large donations and partnerships. To build confidence with supporters, the foundation has changed its pledge process, giving contributors the option to pledge a donation that won’t activate until general construction has started.
The foundation is optimistic that once residents see construction underway, the remaining funds will follow. “In a community like Mt. Lebanon with an interest in the arts, not just film but live music, spoken word, TED talks, this has the absolute opportunity to thrive.”
Nick Moretti, a sophomore at Mt. Lebanon High School, agrees. “We have a lot of nice places to do all kind of things, but there isn’t a place to walk to and see a movie with your friends,” Moretti says.
Moretti, Sylvandell Drive, hopes the Denis plans on screening films that appeal to a wide audience, in addition to documentaries and independent films. “We walk past that theater every day after school on the way to get pizza or go to the coffee shop; if they had after-school showings of movies kids wanted to see, they’d make a lot of money. I’m thinking about throwback classics like ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ or ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail,’” Moretti says.
When it reopens, the Denis plans to screen a wide range of movies based on feedback from potential patrons like Moretti. “We look forward to providing long-time favorites as well as innovative and fun themed programs,” Trivilino says.
While the foundation is actively fundraising to reopen the Denis, it also offers free community programming through the support of grants and foundations. One such program, Meet Me at the Movies, screens films at South Hills area retirement communities as part of non-drug therapy for seniors with dementia or Alzheimers. Another, Reel to Real, offers film screenings and hosts discussion groups afterwards at Washington Square and the Upper St. Clair Library.
More information on fundraising, programming and volunteering can be found on the organization’s website.
Trivilino hopes that with the community’s continued support, construction will be underway in the next year. “People have wanted this for a long time so it’s not unrealistic to think that with raising the funds we could be in construction in 2020 and opening soon thereafter.”