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A church will be the salvation of East Liberty's Regent Theater

Tuesday, June 20, 2000

By Caroline Abels, Post-Gazette Cultural Arts Writer

If theaters have nine lives, the Regent Theater in East Liberty is nearing its limit. Numerous times since it was built around 1919, the humble theater on Penn Avenue near Highland has died and come to life again. Shut down by crime, mismanagement and people's fears of the neighborhood, it's been saved repeatedly by movie chains, community groups and foundations, only to fall into disarray again.

  Stephanie Flom, interim director of the Community Theater Project Corp., stands outside the Regent Theater in East Liberty. Her not-for-profit group is overseeing the renovation of the theater, which has been opened and closed several times since it was built, around 1919. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

The last time the lights dimmed was 1996.

This time, it's hoped, the lights will stay on for good.

Community activists in East Liberty are close to raising all of the $1.3 million needed to renovate the former cinema and reopen it as a performance hall for local arts organizations. With East Liberty Presbyterian Church slated to be the anchor tenant, organizers hope the theater will thrive and spark further redevelopment in East Liberty, which is reawakening after years of deterioration.

"This neat little theater will bring several hundred, if not thousands, of people to the area, and we're excited about that," said Rob Stephany, director of real estate development for the not-for-profit East Liberty Development Inc.

The Regent -- which will be re-named the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater in honor of movie star Gene Kelly and jazz musician Billy Strayhorn, both former residents of the neighborhood -- could also be a boon to small performing arts groups, which suffer from a lack of small, affordable theaters in Pittsburgh. The reconfigured theater will have roughly 325 seats.

"That's a good size for my company," said Norma Jean Barnes, artistic director of Xpressions Contemporary Dance Company, which celebrates African-American culture through dance. She also appreciates the theater's sprung floor -- good for dance -- and its location along many bus lines.

But what's to guarantee that the theater won't fail again?

The people funding and leading the Regent project say they've learned from past mistakes.

After it first shut down in the 1950s, the Regent saw a few revivals and closings before community activists took it over in the late 1980s. At first, it was thought Carnegie Mellon University would anchor the theater, but the plan fizzled, and when the theater reopened after a $1 million renovation, it did not have an anchor tenant -- a situation that left it dark most nights and devoid of a steady income.

This time, East Liberty Presbyterian Church plans to use the theater as a site for its Hope Academy of Music and the Arts, an after-school and weekend arts education program for students and adults. The church does not have enough space in its building to host all of the program's activities but wants to continue its tradition of supporting artistic activity in East Liberty.

"We believe the arts are a good way for people in a multicultural community to speak to each other and understand each other's values and cultural language," said Gail Ransom, minister of Taize prayer at the church.

The church would use the theater 75 percent of the time. Richard Szeremany, who conceived of Hope Academy and is music director at East Liberty Presbyterian, said the church will pay $30,000 a year to use the theater. Local arts groups would use it the remaining time.

Arts groups were enthusiastic about the Regent in 1995, but few ended up using the theater. It's believed that manager Bill Royston focused his programming on national jazz acts to such an extent that local groups became discouraged about participating. (Royston, though, who abruptly quit in 1996, said before his departure that groups failed to follow up on their initial interest in the theater.)

"His vision for it included primarily jazz and dance, which, although a great vision, by nature excluded rap performances, school performances -- the community side of things," Stephany said.

This time, Dance Alloy, I Dream a World, Umoja African Arts Company and Xpressions have expressed serious interest in the facility. On Thursday, organizers will brief other arts groups on the theater.

Shake-ups at East Liberty Development, Inc., sparked by accusations that the organization was discriminating against blacks, also disrupted the endeavor last time. The organization has owned the building since 1987 and has given the Regent supporters fund-raising help, staff support and a long-term lease.

What's more, the board failed to create a marketing and business plan previously. And cost overruns from the renovation left the theater without money to cover losses sparked by poor attendance the first year. People say confusion with the Regent Square Theater, a cinema in Regent Square, kept potential patrons away, as did the perception of a lack of parking and fear of crime in the neighborhood.

Stephany pointed out that in the early '90s, East Liberty was plagued by gang-related incidents.

"I don't think there was a huge spirit of optimism in the air or a feeling about how the arts would relate to that," he said. "The arts were not an integral part of people's lives."

But since then, some arts-related developments have occurred in the area: the Spinning Plate Artist Lofts, which feature inexpensive housing for low-income artists; the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative, a program that seeks to attract artists to the area; and the Dance Alloy studios on Penn.

Stephanie Flom, interim director of the Community Theater Project Corp., which is the not-for-profit group overseeing the renovation, said she's shepherding the project again -- she was the leader in the early '90s -- because "the community deserves a cultural resource." She lived in East Liberty while a student at Pitt and grew fond of it. She was also managing director of Dance Alloy when it moved to East Liberty in 1996.

Flom said the Regent is ripe for historic restoration because of its terra cotta exterior tiles, some of which are pink, blue and pastel green. Additional tiles map out scenes from the Italian countryside. There is also a terrazzo tile floor with marble wainscoting in the lobby, which Flom hopes will double as an art gallery.

A box office, concession stand and enlarged bathrooms are also planned. Patrons will be advised to park in two lots that are located within one block of the theater.

Inside the auditorium, the backstage will be improved and the stage will be lengthened. The theater also will have the capacity to show films. Architect Roxanne Sherbeck of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson of Downtown is leading the project.

Flom stressed that the remodeling of the early '90s was not for naught. The new renovation will simply pick up where the last one left off. Renovations were incomplete last time because the goal was simply to open the theater rather than execute a total overhaul.

It's clear -- from local foundation and community support -- that people believe the Regent can succeed this time.

"There was so much pressure on the Regent project to do so much the first time around but there weren't a lot of support systems in place," said Mary Navarro, arts and culture program officer at the Heinz Endowments, which contributed $370,000 to the Regent this time. "Now we look at it as one element of what's happening in the community, so it can be supported by other development."

Flom said she expects the theater to open sometime next year.

"I've had dreams for years that it's open and there are people in the audience," she said.

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