Ever since my first post about the proscenium, I have made it a habit to take a picture in every new theater I go to. So far I’ve gotten pictures of three: The Cort in New York, and Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall and Benedum Center. (You missed my sweet pix of the Benedum if you didn’t read the expanded version of the post I wrote for AIA Pittsburgh, probably because you rolled your eyes at my T.I. Closet joke. Snob.) I have photographs of three more theaters waiting in the wings, including the Byham Theater.
The Byham Theater, just on the downtown side of the Roberto Clemente (6th St) Bridge, is in it’s third life. The original theater, completed 1904 and named The Gayety, featured the vaudeville acts and chorus lines that were popular at the time. Helen Hayes, the second person ever to complete the EGOT, acted here. So did Ethel Barrymore, who went on to appear in The Spiral Staircase, a movie filmed at the Singer House in Wilkinsburg. There were also acts such as “a group of international women wrestlers who offered any local woman $100 if she could stay standing for 10 minutes”. My, how far we’ve come: with social media, a woman can lose her dignity much faster and for much less money.
I couldn’t find any pictures of the proscenium at the time, but I did find a few drawings from around the time of the 1930 renovation.
In 1930, the theater was converted into a movie theater and changed it’s name to The Fulton. New management really gave it the soft sell (from a print ad ca. 1930):
The New Fulton, 6th St. at the Bridge // The Theatre Glorified with the Splendor of a Kingly Palace // A revelation in theatre perfection. A playhouse not only beautiful — but with absolute perfection in all its appointments — comforts — sight lines — acoustics — sound — and projection.
Absolute perfection in acoustics and sound? For just two bits? And how!
Unfortunately, while no expense was spared in the ad copy, every expense was spared in maintaining the structure. By 1981 some seats were cordoned off when it rained so theater-goers wouldn’t get wet; building owners ought to have taken the advice of Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest when selecting materials to patch the roof: “No wire hangers! EVER!”
The condition of the building continued to decline until 1990, when it was purchased by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, renamed The Byham after a generous donation that made it possible to re-open the theater in 1995, and ultimately given landmark status by Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation in 2002.
Compared to the drawing above, we can see that the box seats were removed (they would have been where the sets of four lights are now). But many of the other features are still intact, including the arch with lighted rosettes (that would have been in front of the box seats), some sculptural elements (would have been above the box seats), and the proscenium itself. There’s also a colorful mural that, while not exactly NSFW, has a few exposed breasts. Enough to attract the attention my 11-year-old stepson during the recent Children’s Theater Festival.
That phrasing implies that there is a low limit, a threshold of exposed breasts that would not have been enough to attract his attention. Anyway. Look, a balcony:
That’s all I know. Thanks for reading.