Curtain to open at Zelienople theater for first time in decades

·7 min read

ZELIENOPLE — Ron Carter didn’t land his first kiss in the back row at the Strand Theater.

He never sat on a duct-taped seat and never threw popcorn in the dark during the late ’70s or early ’80s. He never got to see a bat flap its wings in front of the projector screen smack in a chase scene of a Burt Reynolds’ “Smokey” flick.

Carter never stepped inside the movie theater on Main Street before its 70-year run ended in the mid-’80s.

But, in early 2001 while driving his 7-year-old son to flag-football practice, the Cranberry Township resident noticed the decrepit theater’s still distinctive marquee and the half-moon-shaped windows on its dark, paneled doors.

They were like the bright red doors and windows on the Beaver Theater he noticed on his childhood visits to his grandmother’s home during the ’70s.

“I thought what hundreds of others thought over the years, ‘Somebody should do something,’ ” he said. And soon, he thought, before a wrecking ball bashed the 1914-built theater into a big pile of bricks.

The former marketing executive for Foot Locker and American Eagle Outfitters and a volunteer army of residents and business people did.

They decided to restore the dilapidated theater into a performing arts center that could beckon people from Butler County’s rural north and its growing south as well as from neighboring Beaver County.

And given Zelienople’s proximity to Interstate 79, the center could also prompt Pittsburghers to drive 30 miles north from the city, Carter ventured.

The group organized a community-based funding campaign, formed a nonprofit corporation called the Strand Theater Initiative and mounted fundraising efforts that included selling sweatshirts and trinkets, hosting annual dinner galas, screening classic films on the building’s back wall and selling sponsorships for each of the theater’s anticipated 350 seats for a $200 tax-deductible donation.

By 2002, the corporation had enough money to buy the building for $150,000, Carter said. Design work proceeded. The scope of the project widened into three phases. Carter learned the fine art of applying, then reapplying for public and private grants.

The nonprofit corporation drew in about $1 million in grants, a $300,000 low-interest loan and private donations, of which $70,000 alone came from the 350-seat sponsorships, he said.

And now, eight years after Carter set his sights on the historical theater and seven since the focused work began, the Strand is all dressed up in its $1.5 million restoration and is set to begin a new era as a performing arts center.

Grand opening week begins Thursday with a children’s interactive play and culminates with four performances from July 23 through 26 by Hollywood legend Debbie Reynolds. Tickets are still available for Reynolds’ shows.

Carter couldn’t mask his excitement as he talked above the din of drills, hammers and radio tunes early last week.

“Everyone kept asking me, ‘Why would you even consider this?’ and the answer is ‘Why wouldn’t I consider it?’ ” said Carter, whose full-time job is now president and executive of The Strand Theater Initiative.

That’s because the Strand isn’t the theater where a teenager’s grandmother came to watch Gary Cooper films or where his dad saw “Jaws.”

The theater’s interior has made a decided right turn from its former layout into a very intimate setting that Carter said marries an industrial type architectural design with the theater’s art-deco look of the late 1930s.

The 8- by 25-foot stage, 3 feet high, is on the west wall. Patrons will sit in seven rows of wood grain-trimmed, deep purple cushioned seats, each with a donor nameplate. The rows are tiered in a slight arc in front of the stage.

The first row is an arm’s length away from the stage and the back row is 20 feet away, Carter said. A mezzanine with two rows of seats offers an optimal view.

Clark believes the stage’s proximity to the audience will be ideal for solo or small groups. Ideally, he’d love to see rocker Donnie Iris present an acoustic show, or perhaps B.E. Taylor could perform his holiday show with an acoustic style, he said.

At the onset, Carter expects the Strand to host live entertainment — music, poetry readings, plays — every Friday and Saturday, and he hopes, on Sundays. Performers, organizations and groups are welcome to rent the space. And if live entertainment isn’t scheduled, film festivals featuring Jimmy Stewart movies or sci-fi films will be planned.

The work hasn’t ended. Phase two — estimated at $1.6 million to $1.7 million — will feature a stage house that includes dressing rooms and wing and backstage space constructed in the initiative-owned building next door, as well as an elevator for access to the mezzanine level.

The west wall will be removed to expand the stage another 20 feet. allowing for full-stage productions. Upon completion of phase two, the theater’s seating capacity will increase from 289 to about 350, Carter said.

When that will happen, Carter was reluctant to say. “I’ve learned at this point not to assign dates,” he said.

Still, he hopes that phase three — the projected $2.2 million construction of a parking deck and a multi-purpose center — will be completed by 2014, the Strand’s centennial.

For now, Carter is ready for the Strand’s curtain to go up for the first time in decades with new lights, a new projector and a new stage, the original ticket booth that will boast memorabilia and bright-red, custom-made lobby doors.

A grand Strand opening

The Strand opens its doors in grand style this week. Here’s a sneak preview:

  • Thursday: “Mystery in the Library,” a children’s interactive play at 7:30 p.m. Admission: $5 per person, plus a non-perishable food item for the Southwest Butler County Food Cupboard.

  • Special guest at 7:30 p.m. Free. Tickets available at Strand box office Friday on first-come, first-served basis.

  • Saturday: The Pop Rocks, a young musical rock group, at 8 p.m. Free. Tickets available at the box office Saturday.

  • July 20: A Night of Classics, Fashion Show and Wine & Cheese Tasting at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $20.

  • July 21: Silent film festival featuring a Felix the Cat cartoon, Charlie Chaplin’s “The Pawnbroker” and Buster Keaton’s “The General” at 7:30 p.m.

  • July 23 through July 26: An evening of music and comedy with Debbie Reynolds at 8 p.m. July 23 to 25 and matinee at 2 July 26. Tickets: general seating, $75; post-show reception with Reynolds, $100.

  • Information: (724) 742-0400 or www.TheStrandTheater.org.

Strand memories

Oh, what wonderful weekends young teens had gladly hanging out at the Strand in its waning days.

Here’s to memories made in the late ’70s and early ’80s:

Susan Perry Skamla, 39, Zelienople.

Susan Perry and her best friend, Candie McClintick, the granddaughter of former Strand owner Gloria Nalevanko, got to see snippets of movies when they weren’t selling popcorn, pop and candy at the concession stand.

Fright film “Friday the 13th” stands out, but it wasn’t as scary as the Friday night in May 1985 when a tornado ripped through Butler and Beaver counties, Skamla remembered. The movie went black. Patrons and employees gathered in the theater, terrified, Skamla said, but safe.

And, “It’s where I had my first real kiss,” Skamla said. In the second row, during a horror show, with a classmate who will remain anonymous.

Craig Gehm, 40, Harmony

His junior high hangout, through dark and sporting duct-taped seats and cushions with springs that had popped out, was a good place to toss popcorn at buddies and meet girls. And no one really minded when the film reels went wacky.

Tickets were probably about $2 and popcorn, maybe 50 cents.

The bats are still worth boasting about.

Often during a movie, a bat would pass through the movie projector’s lights. If the bat flapped close to the light, its screen shadow was huge. If it was far away, it looked like a piece of dust.

“It was always a joke. The girls would scream, and the guys would laugh,” Gehm said.

This article originally appeared on Beaver County Times: Curtain to open at Zelienople theater for first time in decades