(New) Nixon Theatre
956 Liberty Avenue,
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This downtown theatre opened as the Victoria Theatre, probably designed as a legitimate theatre. In 1913, it was remodeled by architect John Eberson and continued as the Victoria Theatre until 1920. Then it became the Sam Shubert Theatre from about 1920 to around 1927, suggesting that it was almost certainly a legitimate theatre during these early decades.
It was the Loew’s Aldine Theatre from September 17, 1923, through 1934. The switch from Shubert to Loew’s strongly suggests a shift from legit to moviehouse. In 1939 it became known as Loew’s Senator Theatre, but sometime between then and 1950, the John P. Harris circuit purchased the theatre and modified the name to the (Harris) Senator Theatre. It played some second-run features, generally in double feature programs, but most often the Senator Theatre picked up ‘moveover’ movies directly after the completion of their first-run engagements at the nearby John P. Harris Theatre, the flagship of the Harris circuit.
To maintain the continuity/identity of major national touring companies in Pittsburgh, the Harris Senator Theatre changed its name to the (new) 1,760-seat Nixon Theatre in 1950. For the next quarter of a century, it functioned as the primary legitimate Pittsburgh theatre for touring shows beginning with “Oklahoma” September 4, 1950. Henry Fonda came in “Mr Roberts”. The dozens of other live productions included “Darkness at Noon” with Edward G. Robinson, “Bell, Book and Candle” with Rosalind Russell, “Gentlemen Prefer Blonds” with Carol Channing, “Call Me Madam” with Elaine Stritch, and “Porgy and Bess” with William Warfield, Leontyne Price and Cab Calloway. Plus Bette Davis in “Two’s Company”, Julie Harris in “I Am a Camera”, Helen Hayes in “Mrs. McThing” and many others.
Though an occasional movie slipped in, the Nixon Theatre didn’t begin a recurring policy of roadshow films until “Guys and Dolls” opened in late-January 1956 and stayed for 10 weeks. From then onwards, theatre and roadshow movies opened in alternating waves. “Lawrence of Arabia” had played for just four days of its third week in 1962-3, when the Nixon Theatre suffered a fire. ‘Lawrence’ moved over to the Fulton Theatre a couple of weeks later to resume a reserved-seat engagement, but the momentum was lost, and it lasted just seven more weeks.
Stage plays continued to turn up at the Nixon Theatre, but more and more the balance of the theatre’s schedule was given over to movies. The theatre’s subscription base for plays, so often interrupted for long streches of movies, eroded over the years. By 1974-75, subscribers had become very wary of an extremely irregular play schedule, with promised productions being cancelled and name players backing out of tours. Business was terrible. The shows that came in were small and tacky.
The Nixon Theatre was closed in November 1975 and was leveled. It became a surface parking lot. One distinctive feature of the exterior in its later years had been a marquee that stretched over an alleyway adjacent to the theatre. The original entrance was a tall side of the building level with the auditorium with a simple, but fairly detailed Classic style facade; this was later replaced with a one-story small entrance with the above mentioned marquee.
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