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Court OKs Loews closing

Thursday, June 28, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

They built it, but not enough people came, so Loews is closing its 20-screen North Versailles theater.

Despite opening in November 1999 with high hopes and the muscle of a legendary chain, the megaplex never caught the public's fancy -- or enough of its entertainment dollars.

Loews received permission yesterday from a New York court to abandon its lease and close the $20 million complex off Route 30. The shutdown means it will lay off its staff -- although efforts will be made to relocate employees -- and the theater will go dark after tonight's last show.

"We will remove the equipment that's in the theater and use it in another location, most likely," said Mindy Tucker, a Loews spokeswoman in New York. The complex has roughly 4,100 plush rocking seats, almost brand-new projection and sound equipment and large screens.

The North Versailles theater was competing with a nearby Destinta megaplex and saw its audience further cannibalized when the grander Loews Waterfront theater opened last year.

Yesterday's ruling by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan, where parent Loews Cineplex Entertainment Corp. is undergoing a Chapter 11 reorganization, was a clear triumph for Destinta, which debuted five months before Loews in North Versailles.

Thomas J. Rizzo, chief executive officer of the New Jersey-based Destinta, called the imminent closing "the logical conclusion to the overbuilding that was rampant in the industry in the mid- to late-1990s, [when] theaters were being built one to three miles from each other without giving any thought to the economics."

That also may be a jab at the Star City theater in South Fayette, constructed two miles from Destinta's other Pittsburgh location in Bridgeville.

Rizzo said he thought it was obvious North Versailles could not support two megaplexes. Loews has said it agreed with that sentiment but couldn't get out of its lease.

Once Loews empties the building, JRA Development Group will take possession of the shell.

It is working on marketing the building and site -- including acres of paved parking -- to other tenants, JRA's James Aiello Sr. said. The theater is on Warren Drive, off Route 30, where the Greater Pittsburgh Drive-In once stood.

Half of the 87,000-square-foot building will be converted into office space, while the front facing Wal-Mart will be carved into small storefronts for national tenants.

"We're investigating with the township the ability to put small apartment buildings on the site and a couple of more restaurants," Aiello said, calling it an "A" location for retail but obviously not for a movie house.

"Destinta and Loews were splitting a very small market," he said, and the opening of the Loews Waterfront lured even more patrons away. "The Loews in North Versailles is a beautiful theater," but customers from Forest Hills or Squirrel Hill could easily head for the popular Waterfront development beneath the Homestead High-Level Bridge.

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