The Regent Debuts
In 1919, the Regent –- a state-of-the-art, 1,100-seat “Photo Play House”—began screening America’s favorite silent films. East End residents could catch Mary Pickford or Douglas Fairbanks at the Regent and enjoy music, more films, and live performances at the other many theaters in the neighborhood. The theaters included the Camera-Phone, Enright, Harris Family Theatre, Liberty, Sheridan, and Triangle.
The Regent featured a grand theater organ that was played to accompany silent films with dramatic live music. Harry S. Bair was the architect.
Over the decades, the Regent had its ups and downs. The theater was sometimes dark for periods of time.
A “reopening” was held on July 18, 1965 following a $175,000 renovation under Associated Theaters, a group lead by Ernest Stern, president, who also owned Pittsburgh Theaters the Encore, the Fulton (now the Byham), Gateway, and Forum theaters. The capacity was reduced to 850 to provide increased patron comfort for the first showing of “In Harm’s Way,” with Kirk Douglas, John Waye, and Patricia Neal. Former audience members report that young people could spend Saturday at the Regent where animated features and action-adventure movies were screened all day.
However, in October 1979, the Regent closed again. Its sister theaters were gone. By the 1990’s the Regent was poised for renewal, along with the community it calls home. Pittsburgh’s downtown cultural district was underway, but Pittsburgh needed another mid-sized venue to welcome small arts groups and community programs. The arts community gathered for a sneak peek fundraiser to support the possibilities, including a Gallery of local stars provided by the East Liberty Chamber of Commerce.
In the next century…
In 2000, the Post-Gazette reported that the theater would have a new name in honor of Pittsburgh greats Gene Kelly and Billy Strayhorn.
In 2003 the New Pittsburgh Courier reported that audiences were again lining up on Penn Avenue:
“Shocking is the word to describe the long line of people waiting to buy tickets outside of East Liberty’s Kelly Strayhorn Theater. Apparently, the word was out that the Black Theater Dance Ensemble was returning to the stage after nearly two decades.”
By 2009-10, the Kelly Strayhorn was in use more than three-quarters of the possible performance and rehearsals days as young performers, dancers, filmmakers, actors, musicians, community organizations, and audiences participate in the ongoing renaissance of East Liberty’s performing arts center. Patrons step over a commemorate “Walk of Stars,” reconizing artists, friends, fans, and family members when they arrive for an event. The theater’s exterior lights signal anticipation of the next show and the neon signature of the namesakes sparkles all night long.
As the Kelly Strayhorn begins its 11th season, more innovation, leadership, engagement, and “green” awareness is underway.