Heinz Hall

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Ornate Entertainment Palace Transformed to Classic Musical Hall
Heinz Hall, located in the heart of Pittsburgh’s cultural district on the corner of Sixth Street and Penn Avenue was architected as a grand ornate French Baroque style palace for movies and stage shows. It now serves as the home of the world renowned Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Opened in 1927 as the Loews Penn Theater it was billed as the greatest movie palace between Chicago and New York. It featured daily live emceed variety stage shows followed by silent films that were orchestrated with the sounds of the great Robert Morton organ. Big Bands and the “talkies” entertained Pittsburghers at the Loews Penn during the 1930s. During World War II the live shows ended and it became solely a movie house. As the movie audience dwindled in the 1950s and 1960s it once again hosted musicals and pop music concerts. The Heinz foundation purchased the Penn Theater in 1967 to make it the home for the PSO. After 18 months of extensive remodeling it reopened with a premiere concert by the PSO in 1971. Conductors William Steinberg, Andre Previn, Lorin Maazel, Mariss Jansons, and Manfred Honeck have led PSO the during its forty year residence at Heinz Hall.  Several generations of Pittsburghers have enjoyed great music from great performers at the Loews Penn Theater / Heinz Hall.

Over its eighty year history the Loews Penn Theater / Heinz Hall has hosted the top artists in jazz, classical, and pop music. In the jazz era Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Paul Whiteman, Fred Waring, George Jessel, and Eddie Cantor graced the Loews Penn Theater Stages. Appearing with the PSO, the Pittsburgh Opera and as soloist were Luciano Pavarotti, Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein, Leonard Bernstein, Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Zubin Mehta, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Mstislav Rostropovich, Yehudi Menuhin, Carlo Maria Giulini, James Galway, Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, Marilyn Horne, John Williams, Henry Mancini and Jackie Evancho.  As the site of many memorable pop concerts the Penn Theater and Heinz Hall have hosted Bruce Springsteen ,Diana Ross, The Temptations, Otis Redding, The Beach Boys, Santana, Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Denver, Barry Manilow, Sha Na Na, Frankie Valli, Johnny Mathis, Chris Botti, Robert Flack, Jack Jones, James Taylor, Trey Anastasio, Sarah McLachlan, Ben Folds, Morrissey, B.E. Taylor, and more.

Marcus Loew  and the Construction of the Loew's Penn Theater

The 1920s were a golden age in Pittsburgh. The steel mills, Westinghouse Electric, the banks and cultural institutions were booming. Daily over 20,000 to 25,000 Pittsburghers attended performances of vaudeville shows, plays,movies, musicals and concert.  Pittsburgh was known as the city of theaters. To meet the growing demand for entertainment a theater building boom took place in downtown Pittsburgh.  Movie theater chain magnate and MGM studio owner Marcus Loew entered the lucrative Pittsburgh entertainment market in 1923.

Marcus Loew began in the entertainment business in New York City opening a nickelodeon in 1903 and the People's Vaudeville Company in 1905. He purchased a Brooklyn burlesque house called the Royal that he converted to a combined vaudeville theater and movie house.  Finding success with the Royal’s combined vaudeville movie format he convert his penny arcades into movie houses. With his partner Adolph Zukor he expanded by purchasing nickelodeons in Cincinnati and Manhattan. His chain grew to 40 locations over the next two years. He formed Loew’s Theatrical in 1912. By 1920 he owned hundreds of theaters where he booked vaudeville shows and movies. To provide a steady stream of movies for his chain Loew purchased Metro Pictures Corporation for $3.1 million in 1920. He bought the controlling interest in Goldwyn Pictures for $4.3 million and Louis B. Mayer Pictures for $76,500 to form Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) in 1925. MGM was a subsidiary of Loew’s Inc and grew to become the largest motion picture production company in the world. At its peak under Marcus the Loew Inc owned 400 venues.  As the owner of hundreds of theaters and the controlling investor in MGM Marcus Loews was the most powerful man in the film industry in the 1920s.

The Shubert Organization knowing that Loews wanted to do business in Pittsburgh offered Marcus their Sam Shubert Theatre at 954 Liberty Avenue.   Loew took over the theater in 1923 renaming it Loew’s Aldine Theater.  In a letter to the Pittsburgh Press on Sept 10, 1923 theater manager Louis K. Sidney said that Loew would bring a new style of motion picture entertainment to Pittsburgh with "high class music, classified jazz, solists of note, dancers and atmospheric prologues, all produced with the proper blending of music, lights, and color.”  The Aldine opened on Monday September 17, 1923 and offered live shows with the Marx Brothers, Burns and Allen, George Jessel and other acts along with silent movies.  It was operated as the Loew’s Aldine Theatre until 1934 and became the new Nixon Theater in 1950.  The Nixon Theater closed in November 1975 and was leveled to create a beautiful blacktop parking lot.

Finding success with the Aldine Loew decided to make a major investment in Pittsburgh.  On January. 6, 1926 Marcus Loew announced plans to erect the largest and grandest theater in the Pennsylvania.  It was to be located at the corner Sixth Street and Penn Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh.  The architectural firm of Rapp & Rapp Marcus were hired by Loew to design the new grand theater. Cornelius W. Rapp and George L. Rapp in 1921 had designed the iconic Chicago Theater in their signature Neo-Baroque French Revival style. Loew acquired the Anderson Hotel located at the corner Sixth Street and Penn Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh and demolished it in 1925 to make way for his new theater.  Construction began on January 6, 1926 and was completed in 1927 at a cost of $5 million.  He raised $3 million of the cost through the sale of public stock.

Billed as the "Temple of Cinema" the five story 3,400 seat Loew’s Penn Theater had a vaulted Venetian ceiling, massive 50 foot high gilded Corinthian columns, marble staircases, two spectacular 15 foot tall bronze and crystal chandeliers and was adorned in silk drapes.  The spectacular auditorium had a towering proscenium arch decorated with gold gilding and the cove-lit ceiling was hung with chandeliers. The crystals on all of the chandeliers were imported from Vienna, Austria.  Artwork by Renaissance masters hung on its walls. It was regarded as the most magnificent theater between New York and Chicago.

To accompany the silent movies a large pipe organ designed by Robert Morton was installed on the movable orchestra pit platform. The largest organ in Pittsburgh it was billed as "the greatest musical instrument the world has ever known." The organ could produce the sound of every orchestra instrument with the volume of a 50 man orchestra.

Grand Opening Shock at  the Loews Penn Theater

To celebrate his new theater Marcus Loews planned to attend the grand opening in Pittsburgh on Monday Labor Day September 5, 1927. In the weeks before the opening downtown Pittsburgh was draped in "Welcome Marcus Loew" banners. On noon on Labor day the blocks long crowd began entering the Penn Theater for its grand opening. E.A. Schiller, a Loew Vice President, told theater manager to stop the show. Word had just been received that Marcus Loew had died in his sleep at his home in Glen Cove New York at 7 am that morning from a heart ailment. He was just 57 years old. Louis Sidney, a Loew’s the division manager, went on stage to make the announcement and then climbed onto the marquee with a megaphone to announce to the crowd outside that the show was postponed for a day.

The grand opening went on the following day Tuesday September 6, 1927. Thousands of people filled the sidewalks waiting to enter. Orchestra seats were 25 cents and better loge seats were 75 cents. The first time theater goers gasped in awe of the splendor of the Grand Lobby with its 50-foot-high vaulted Venetian ceiling, massive ornamental columns, and ornate chandeliers. They were greeted by a polite uniformed staff of 40. The show began with Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture played a 60 piece orchestra led by Don Albert. An MGM newsreel was shown, a novelty active peformed, Ted Lewis known as "the high hatted tragedian of song” and his band headlined the stage show. The silent film feature was the two hour "Adam and Evil" starring Aileen Prinngle and Lew Cody. Organist Dick Leibert accompanied the movie on the great Robert Morton Organ. The opening was a smashing success.  "The theater brought an elegance to Pittsburgh that it never had before" - Jack Simon assistant manager

Loew's Penn Theater Prospers

The Loew’s Penn Theater quickly became a popular venue that featured touring vaudeville stage shows and orchestras along with week-long silent movie showings. A rotating mix of national acts appeared including Paul Whiteman and the Rhtyhm Boys featuring Bing Crosby.Buster Keaton, and Eddie Cantor.  Ted Lewis was the master of ceremonies.  Weekly attendance avegaged about 60,000.  With an average admission charge of 50 cents grosses were $25,000 a week and $2.5 million annually.  The theater was jointly owned by Loew's Inc and the United Artists Theater Circuit

In 1929 William Fox, president of Fox Theaters and the Fox Film Company, purchased a controlling interest in Loews Inc.  Fox canceled his plans to build a Fox Theater in Pittsburgh as Fox Movies where shown at the Loew’s Penn and Aldine Theaters.  

In the 1930s the big bands played the stage of the Penn Theater. Cab Calloway & His Cotton Club Orchestra, Phil Spitalny & His Musical Ladies, Duke Ellington, the Ted Lewis Band, Guy Lombardo, and Fred Waring & His Pennsylvanians appeared. The stars Jimmy Durante, Charles 'Buddy' Rogers, Jack Benny George Jessel, and Eddie Cantor also performed.  On screen were shown the films of the Barrymores, Douglas Fairbanks, Delores Del Rio, Gloria Swans. Greta Garbo, Andy Rooney, Clark Gable, and The Marx Brothers

Flood Waters Closes the Loews Penn

Disaster struck the Loew's Penn Theater with the St. Patrick's Day in 1936. On that day a great flood engulfed much of downtown Pittsburgh. 
As the last showing for the night was letting out water pounded the box office on sixth street and the Grand Lobby was flooded under several feet of water.   Patrons waded through water in the lobby to leave the theater.  Manager Mike Cullen said he and his staff of about forty ushers and cleaners were marooned without food or water.  Cullen said the water was up to the loge seats.  Mike and the staff escaped by boat after smashing out a window above the Marque.  The console of the great Robert Morton organ was destroyed by the flood waters.  The Loews Penn Theater was closed for four weeks.

End of Stage Shows

During World War II there was a scarcity of name acts.  Many musicians and vaudevillians were off fighting or entertaining the troops around the world.  There was also difficulties in mounting traveling stage shows.  The Loews Penn Theater stopped presenting stage shows in the early 1940s and became just a movie house.   

World Movie Premiere Extravaganzas

The movie “Allegheny Uprising” starring John Wayne and George Sanders had is world premier on November 5, 1939 at the Loew’s Penn Theater. The RKO movie premiere was held in conjunction with the 100 anniversary of the founding of the city of Allegheny. A 12 block long parade with covered wagons, ox carts, and period floats preceded the movie showing. Maurice Spitalny's 22 piece NBC orchestra performed and the premiere was broadcast nationally via KDKA radio. Female lead Claire Trevor attended and the Pittsburgh mayor spoke. The movie was based on the best selling book "The First Rebel" by Neil H. Swanson former editor of the Pittsburgh Press. Loosely based on the historical Black Boys Rebellion of 1765 it was the tale of revolt against British rules by Pittsburgh settlers before the American Revolution.

One of the biggest movie premiere events ever was held at the Loews Penn Theater in 1947. Showman Cecil B. DeMille came to Pittsburgh to premier his epic film "Unconquered. Starry Gary Copper, Paulette Goddard, and Boris Karloff it was the story struggles between American colonists and Native Americans on the western frontier at Fort Pitt in 1763 during Pontiac's Rebellion. It was based on former Pittsburgh Press editor Neil Swanson's book “Unconquered, a Novel of the Pontiac Conspiracy”. The movie opened with the line "At the forks of the Ohio stands an American city whose mills and furnaces bring forth bone and sinew for a nation.” Some scenes were shot in Cook’s Forest. With a $5 million dollar budget it was a DeMille spectacle.

The premiere extravaganza was held on October 2 and 3 1947. The governor, author, and director attend the premiere dinner at the William Penn Hotel the night before the premiere. A huge six foot high reviewing stand was built in front of theater for the premier ceremonies. On the premiere day Pittsburgh schools were closed. A two hour parade was held in the afternoon with 33 bands, Indians, covered wagons, and nationality groups dressed in native clothing. The parade went through downtown on 5th avenue to sixth street past the Loews Penn Theater reviewing stand and continued onto the north side over the 6th street bridge to Stockton Avenue. It was said to be the biggest parade ever held for a movie premier. After the parade 1000 children attended a dedication ceremony at the Fort Pitt Block House. A post parade concert was held on the step of the Trinity Cathedral.

In the evening thousands waited for an hour on Sixth Street and Penn Avenue waiting for the ceremony to start. Jack Walton's band and Keystone Choristers band played music. Bob Prince was the master of ceremonies. The ceremonies started at 8 with the premier at 8:30. Columnist Hedda Hopper introduce the stars including Billy De Wolf and glamorous actresses Olgo San Juan, Virginia Wells and Lizabeth Scott. Tickets were by special invitation.

Loew's Penn Theater Closes

The Penn Theater operated under the Loew's banner until September 1, 1954 when it was acquired by United Artists Theaters. The John P. Harris Organization took of the management of the theater in 1957.

During the 1960s the Loew's Penn Theater struggled financially.  Audiences were drawn away by competition from television and suburban movie theaters.  To draw audiences in the late 1950s and early 1960s the Penn offered boxing matches shown via closed-circuit television.  With high operating and maintenance costs on the large 3,400 seat theater profitability dropped.  In 1964 many of the paintings, statues and art objects were removed and shipped to New York,  The theater closed its doors as a movie theater on September 8, 1964.  The theater sat dark, empty, and forgotten.  There was talk of demolishing the ornate theater to create another beautiful parking lot.  

Reopening as the Penn Auditorium for Concert and Musicials

The need for a space to host concerts and musicals brought the Penn Theater back to life in 1966.  On 
March 25, 1966 the Penn Theater was reopened for a one night stand by Victor Borge.  Shorty afterwards it was announce that Gabe Rubin and John Shapiro, owner the the National Record Mart, has lease the theater from the Penn-Federal Corporation that held it in receivership.  It was relaunched as the "Penn Theater Auditorium .  An investment of $15,000 was made to an new sound system, lights, and to repair the interior.  Spent $15,000.  The goal of Rubin an Shapiro was to promoted Broadway shows, variety Shows, and concerts.  Lenny Litman and other promoters booked shows at relaunched Penn Theater.

The Penn Theater Auditorium in Pittsburgh was the setting for the July 24, 1966 concert featuring the soul king Otis Redding that hosted by WAMO's Brother Matt. Pittsburgh singer Johnny Daye was added to the bill as the opening act when Wilson Pickett canceled. Daye performed three songs with Otis Redding watching him from the wings. After the show Otis said to Daye: ‘Why don’t you come to Memphis and make records with me? Give me your number.’ Otis Redding called Daye at his home a month later Otis took Daye on tour to perform on the Chittlin Circuit.  With Redding’s help Johnny Daye signed a record deal with Stax Records. 

Carol Channing broke box office records appearing in Hello Dolly at the Penn Theater in January of 1967.  Originally schedule to play a two week run starting on January 24, 1967 the billing was extended.  Channing played four consecutive weeks through February 8th to capacity crowds.  Carol ask that her opening in Rochester NY be postponed a week so she could continue to play Pittsburgh.  Her show was followed by a run of the Odd Couple on February 20th starring George Gobel and Phil Foster.  Ann Corio appear in musical "This Is Burlesque" in 1967.

On Apr 11, 1967 an audience of about 2000 fans become impatient waiting for a Sunday afteroon concert by trumper Al Hirt to begin.  Al Hirt was found asleep in his hotel room an awoken.  He thought it was an evening performance and show up an hour and a half late.

The Beach Boys appeared on April 16, 1967 along with Tommy James, Jim And Jean, The Uncalled for Three, and The Left Bank. Lenny Litman brought the Jefferson Airplane to headline at the Penn on Oct 21, 1967. The Beach Boys returned on Nov 22, 1967 appearing with the Buffalo, Springfield, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Soul Survivors and the Pickle Brothers.  Joan Baez, booked by Lenny Litman played the Penn Theater in Pittsburgh on Friday December 17, 1967

Heinz Foundation Purchase

On March 30, 1967 Mellon Bank announced that it had 5 story Penn Theater. for $850,000 on the behalf of an unnamed
 mystery buyer.  The Heinz Foundation, Henry J. Heinz II, and Charles Denby, President of the Pittsburgh Symphony Society, together with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Allegheny Conference and the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, purchased the Penn Theater to as the new home Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Civic Light Opera, and the Pittsburgh Opera.  The PSO wanted out the Syria Mosque because of Oakland Parking problems and lack of air conditioning.  The CLO, which was struggling financially wanted out of its 100,000 annual lease at the Civic Arena. 

Two public concerts were held by the PSO in 1966 and 1967 to test out the acoustic at the Penn Theater. Consultants, critics, and fans found the acoustics to be dead. The consultant Heinrich Keilholz was hired to improve the building's acoustics. On the advice of Keilholz a large plaster sound reflector was to be added to the stage’s proscenium arch.

The last show held at the original Penn Theater was in March 1970 when 3,426 heard the PSO perform with trumpeter Doc Severinsen and comedy team of Brockett and Barbara. After that show the theater was closed for 18 months of renovation.

To transform the Loew’s Penn from a movie theater into a glittering orchestra hall a $10 million reconstruction and restoration project was undertaken. 
The architect for the project was the Pittsburgh firm of Stotz, Hess, MacLachan & Foster. The original interior features were restored to their original appearance. The gold detailing in the Grand Lobby and auditorium was restored with 24-karat gold leaf by two craftsmen who worked for 18 months. The grand lobby chandeliers were rebuilt with replaced Austrian crystals. A brilliant white and gold color scheme replaced the original polychrome décor. Acoustic baffles and a large plaster sound reflector was added to the stage’s proscenium arch to create a lively concert sound. To add more comfortable leg room the number of seats was reduced from 3,486 to 2,847. Extensive changes were made to the building’s exterior. The original movie marquee was removed. The first floor space that had been the Mayflower Dinner was transformed into a main entrance lobby. The original arched window of the entrance was extended to the ground level making it 40 foot tall. A five floor 30 foot deep addition to the rear of the building extended the stage and added dressing rooms, rehearsal spaces and the music library.

Heinz Hall Grand Opening

The grand opening ceremony of Heinz Hall was held on September 10, 1971. H. J. Heinz II gave the dedication speech. William Steinburg conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony. The concert opened with Beethoven's "Consecration of the House" Overture and was followed by a premiere of Samual Barber 'Fadograph of Yester Years Scene". A large chorus made up the combined Penn State University choirs accomandied the PSO in the closing performance of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony. Sopranao Benita Valente and mezzo-sporana Joanna Simon soloed during the Mahler piece. Celebrities who attended the event included Charlton Heston, James Earl Jones, Agnes de Mille, Marian Anderson, and Gregory Peck. The Civic Light Open held its inaugural Heinz Hall opening two days later.

The New York Times gave the Heinz hall and its acoustics rave reviews calling it an "Acoustical Gem". The reported cited its as an example of the best kind of urban renewal with the transformation of a white elephant into a "spacious, superbly equipped facility for music and dance".


Improvements were made to Heinz Hall in 1982 and 1995. The outdoor Heinz Hall Plaza and a four story addition were made in 1982. In 1995 a $6.5 million renovation was made to improve the acoustics with a new orchestra shell, new acoustical risers, and butterfly sound reflector. Auditorium seats were refurbished. Paint, gold leaf gilding and wall paper were refreshed. Heating and air conditioning was improved.

Marvin Hamlish and the Pops

After an award winning career as a composer of music for Broadway and the movies, Marvin Hamlisch came to Pittsburgh in 1995 for his first permanent conducting job.  The Pittsburgh Symphony hired him to revamp their Pops Series.  Hamlisch brought a fresh new approach to Pops. He wanted to entertain and delight popular music fans with popular music. Using his Broadway showmanship and wit Hamlisch attracted new younger  fans to the Pops and delighted the traditional over 50 symphony subscribers. Hamlisch increased the popularity of the Pittsburgh Symphony nationwide taking Pittsburgh Pops on tour performing concert series with James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Andre Bocelli and other artists in Philadelphia, Washington, Hartford, Saratoga Springs and other cities.  He also conducted them on a series of PBS specials in 1996 and 1997.

Hamlisch's approach to Pops was a smashing success in Pittsburgh both artistically and financially. The 1994-95 Pops season before Hamlisch took over the Pops had total tickets sales of 56,000 that were well below the capacity of Heinz Hall. By the 1999-2000 season the total ticket sales grew to 70,000 at 94 percent of capacity. Hamlisch reversed an 8 year decline in sales rescuing the PSO. Sales for the classical series grew also.  While other major orchestras in Philadelphia, Detroit, Tampa and Charlotte struggled to stay afloat the Pittsburgh Symphony thrived with the help of Marvin Hamlisch and his many loyal Pops fans.

Hamlisch's Pittsburgh Pops concerts included an array of  local and national artists. To perform with the Pittsburgh Pop Hamlisch brought in a host of Broadway and Pop stars including Patti LuPone, Bebe Neuwirth, Andrea Bocelli, Marilyn Horne, Shirley Jones, Chris Botti, Bill Conti, Johnny Mathis, Burt Bacharach, Natalie MacMaster, Lucie Arnaz and Robert Klein, Julie Budd, Melba Moore, Tony Orlando, John Pizzarelli, the  Platters, Sha Na N, Toni Tennille and the Captain, John Raitt, the Bobs and John Tesh.