Entertaining: Pittsburgh region’s entertainment history is rich

The Pittsburgh region also boasts contemporary attractions such as McKees Rocks’ Roxian Theatre, which offers live entertainment, musical acts, and comedy, and Stowe’s Parkway Theater and Film Lounge.

By Lisa Mullen


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Pittsburgh is a popular destination for filming movies, documentaries and television series. Just this year a new Netflix limited series, “The Chair,” starring Sandra Oh, is set to film in Pittsburgh and the surrounding area. Be on the lookout for familiar landmarks when the show is released in late 2021 or early 2022.


The Pittsburgh region also boasts contemporary attractions such as McKees Rocks’ Roxian Theatre, which offers live entertainment, musical acts, and comedy, and Stowe’s Parkway Theater and Film Lounge which is a “movie theater, brewery, full-service bar/lounge and eatery housed under one roof.”


But Pittsburgh’s culture of theatre and entertainment is nothing new. The region has a long, rich and varied history in entertainment. From world-class theaters to hit movies to famous actors and actresses, the Pittsburgh area has impacted the entertainment industry since the late 1700s.


“Balls, plays, concerts and comedies” were performed at Fort Pitt for the British military in 1765.


Pittsburgh opened its first free-standing playhouse in 1813 with eight to 10 actors performing with touring “stars” of the day. By 1859, William Henderson took over the Old Drury Theatre and began producing plays written by Pittsburgh playwrights.


By the 1900s, Pittsburgh was well-known as a great location for theatre productions because of its numerous playhouses, strategic location, rail service, and its well-established audience of theatre enthusiasts.


Pittsburgh’s famous Byham Theater originally opened as The Gayety Theater in 1904. It attracted Broadway plays and featured famous actresses such as Ethel Barrymore, Gertrude Lawrence and Helen Hayes as well as international ballets and operas. Pittsburgh also lays claim to having the first public movie theater in the country, the Nickelodeon, which opened in 1905.


The Stanley Theater, now the Benedum Theatre, opened in 1928 and has become home to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Opera and the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater.


The Pittsburgh Playhouse, the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and the Pittsburgh Public Theater all opened in the 20th century and are all still in existence today, continuing to offer musicals and plays.


Locally, a Nickelodeon theater opened in Coraopolis in 1906 and touted five cent admission to see moving pictures. The Star Family Theater and the Lyric Theater also opened in Coraopolis by 1910. Famous New York movie star Frankie Mann performed live at The Star Family Theater in 1917, while the Lyric featured an orchestra pit.


The Pittsburgh area is responsible for the backdrops of many major motion pictures. “Jack Reacher” (2012), “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012) and “Striking Distance” (1993), were filmed in Pittsburgh. Sections of “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) and “Adventureland” (2009) were filmed in Moon Township, and familiar sites in nearby Beaver County can be seen featured in such films as “Super 8” (2011), “Kingpin” (1996), “Unstoppable” (2010), and “I Am Number Four” (2011).


The greater Pittsburgh area has given rise to notable actors, an infomercial star and a newscaster, including:


Michael Keaton, an actor whose films include “Beetlejuice” and “Batman.” He was born in Kennedy Township and grew up in the McKees Rocks, Coraopolis and Robinson Township areas.


Paul Shannon, a radio announcer and actor who created a comedy/variety show for kids called “Adventuretime.” He was born in Crafton.


William (Billy) Mays Jr., an infomercial salesman who promoted such products as Kaboom, Orange Glo and OxiClean. He grew up in McKees Rocks and Stowe areas.


Jodi Applegate, a news anchor who worked at NBC News and MSNBC. She was raised in Moon Township.


Dennis Miller, an actor, political commentator and comedian who was a “Saturday Night Live” cast member from 1985 to 1991. He was born in Pittsburgh.