Leona Theater


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Mon Valley Home of Vaudeville, Doo Wop, Rock and Bingo Kings
Homestead’s Leona Theater stood for fifty eight years serving as the entertainment and social center of the Mon Valley.  Opened in 1925 as “Stahl’s Million Dollar Theater” it offered live vaudeville acts, first run movies and news reels. George Burns, Gracie Allen, Sophie Tucker, and Fred Allen appeared during the vaudeville era. The Stahl Garden ballroom in the theater’s lower level was the scene of dance marathons, high school proms, big band dances, boxing matches, teen dances, social organization meetings, amateur shows and bingo games. During the 1950s the Leona hosted Doo Wop and early rock n roll shows starring Bo Diddley, Carl Perkins, the Cadillacs, the Del Vikings, the El Vinos and more. 

 In the late 1970’s the "New Leona Theater" was ground zero for many memorable concerts by stars of rock, jazz, and country rock.  Rockers David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Blondie, Journey, Montrose, Van Halen, Meatloaf, the Asbury Jukes, Iggy Pop, Little Feat, and Patti Smith tore up the Leona stage.  Jazz artists Freddie Hubbard, Larry Coryell, Pat Metheny, Al Jarreau, Takin' Names and David Sanborn appeared. Folk and country rock acts Pete Seeger, Pure Prairie League, New Riders of the Purple Sage, and Don Williams also appeared. Abandoned and in disrepair in the early 1980s the Leona Theater was demolished to make way for a failed Sheetz convenience store.

Stahl's Million Dollar Theater

John E. Stahl, a mail carrier from Braddock, opened a small nickelodeon theater in the early 1900's following in the footsteps Harry Davis who opened the world's first movie theater in downtown Pittsburgh in 1905.  Stahl grew his first theater into a chain of small Mon Valley movie houses. He owned eight theaters on Eighth Avenue in Homestead and West Homestead including the Elite, the Tiffany, The Crescent, and the Grand Vaudeville Theater. Stahl tore down the Grand Vaudeville Theater and invested one million dollars to construct the larger and grander "Million Dollar Theater" in 1925.  It was one of the first ornate "million dollar" vaudeville / movie house theaters built in the country.

The block long four story Stahl's Million Dollar Theater building housed the 1,383 seat theater, Stahl’s Garden Ballroom, sevenx storefronts, six second floor doctors offices and third floor luxury apartments.  The theater had two balconies, an orchestra pit, a 1,200 pipe Kimball organ (the largest in Western, Pa) and an ornately decorated doomed ceiling with a large chandelier.  It stood at the corner of Eighth Avenue and Ann Street in the main commercial district of the booming 20,000 person steel town of Homestead, Pa.  

Stahl's Million Dollar Theater opened with great fanfare on November 11, 1925. The evening began with an overture from the live ten piece orchestra, followed by news reals, the feature movie Charlie Chaplin's "The Gold Rush" and ten vaudeville acts. Tickets holder danced all night in the grand ballroom. To promote movies Stahl hired actors to dress as the movie characters such as cowboys and Indians to roam the Eighth Avenue business district. Over the next 42 years the Leona offered movies, concerts, dances to the people of the Mon Valley.

During the 1920's the Stahl ballroom was the site of many dance marathons.  Twenty four couples danced for 144 hours and 55 minutes in a 1928 marathon.

Jim Crow Seating Ends

The Leona was the scene of a civil rights sit in. In 1938 African Americans who had been restricted to sitting in the balcony of the theater, resisted the Jim Crow law by taking seats on the first floor. Several of the daring protesters were arrested. When the progressive Steel Workers Organization Committee took control of Homestead city government from the Republican machine in 1938, the Jim Crow laws were relaxed. The Leona changed it seating policy. African Americans were free to sit anywhere in the theater, while they remained in force in the downtown Pittsburgh theaters.

Renamed to the Leona

John Stahl encountered financially difficulties in the late 1930s and early 1940s due to the Depression and the expansion of the Homestead Works.  Ten thousand families, a third of Homestead's population, were displaced from Homestead to make way for new mills.  Stahl got behind on his mortgage payments.  Titus Holder, the contractor who built the theater, took ownership of the building,  He renamed the theater in honor his daughter, Leona.

After the vaudeville era end in the 1930s, the Leona continued as a family movie theater during the Forties and Fifties offering Saturday cartoon marathons for the kids.  It also presented occasional live shows.  Film actor Jeff Goldblum, who grew up in West Homestead, fondly recalls in national interviews attending the packed Saturday children's matinees where he saw movies like "King Kong versus Godzilla".   

Associated Theaters took control of the Leona in 1953.  After a remodel and installation of a Cinema Scope screen, the Leona reopen on Christmas day 1953.

Bingo Kings Busted

The Leona Theater made the news on May 15, 1951 when a 12 man state police strike force made a daring raid on a bingo game being held in the Leona’s ballroom. Eight hundred gambling grandma’s where in attendance when the state police arrested five members of the Pryel family. Albert and Beulah Pryel had been running the bingo game for the Ladies of the G.A.R. for six years beginning in 1946. The Bingo was held three times a week drawing an average of 400 to 500 people. Players paid $1 for five cards and $12 for twelve cards for a chance to win televisions, appliances and furniture. Among the thousands of bingo games held throughout Pennsylvania, the state police singled out the Pryels for punishment. It was reported that the bingo grossed $250,000 a year netting the Pryels, who earned 2% of the proceeds, $30,000 in income. Three members of the Pryel family were fined $500 and given one year probation. The evil vice of bingo playing was stamped out at the Leona. 

Doo Wop Rock N Roll Shows

The Leona hosted live Rock N Roll and Doo Wop concerts during the 1950s.  On September 26, 1956 the Leona presented LaVern Baker, Carl Perkins, the Shepherd Sisters, the Turbans, Joe Turner, and the Moonglows.  DJ Barry Kaye’s Rock ‘N Roll Spectacular concert was held at the Leona in December of 1956 with incredible bill of Bo Diddley, the Heartbeats, the Cadillacs, the Charms, the El Venos, Dakota Staton, Johnnie & Joe, the Johnny Burnette Trio, Chuck Willis, and the Roy Gaines Band. At the time of the show the El Vinos had a number 3 hit in Pittsburgh with the song “Geraldine. WAMO DJ Porky Chedwick also emceed shows at the Leona including one with Bo Diddley and the Del Vikings.

Leona Movie Theater Closes

Homestead and the Mon Valley's population declined steeply during the 1960s.  Homestead dropped to 6,500 residents in the 1970  census.  With the decline in population in Homestead, Braddock and other Mon Valley towns the 1,800 seat Leona Theater was closed in 1967.  It stood empty for seven years.  In 1973 Anthony Pivorotto purchased the Leona at a sherrif's sale in hopes of selling the property to Exxon for a gas station.  After Exxon backed out of the deal, Pivorotto searched for a way to earn his money back.

The New Leona Concert Hall

In May of 1974 an organization named Fresh Energies rented the Leona to host theatrical productions and concerts. They cleaned and painted the theater and announced plans to produce four theatrical production a year. Jay-Lou Productions presented the original musical “The Mysterious Ghost” on March 31, 1974. In October 1974 the building was renamed the “New Leona Theater”.  

The first concert to be held at the New Leona was on January 22, 1977 when Pete Seeger appeared at a benefit concert to raise funds for Ed Sadlowski’s United Steel Workers Campaign.  

Promoter Danny Kresge moved his rock and jazz concerts to the Leona when DiCeasar-Engler Productions took control of downtown Pittsburgh's Stanley Theater in 1977. Kresge's first show at the New Leona was on March 29, 1977 with Blondie, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie.  Corbin and Hanner's band Gravel along with the band Easy Elmer appeared on May 1, 1977 in a benefit for Gravel guitarist Greg Bendix who died in a car crash on April 3, 1977.

WDVE broadcast the July 30, 1977 concert of sax player David Sanborn and Pittsburgh act of Chunky, Novie, and Ernie. 

The first Blues Extravaganza was held at the Leona in October of 1977 with the Night Hawks, the newly formed Billy Price Keystone Rhythm Band, and the the Rhythm Kings.  The concert was organized and promoted by the owners of Swissvale's Fat City Lounge.

The punk band the Sex Pistols with Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious were scheduled to make their first ever U.S. appearance to opened their North American tour at the Leona on December 28, 1977.  But their entry into the U.S. was blocked by immigration for several weeks because of the Sex Pistols criminal records.  The Leona show was canceled and the tour began in January of 1978.

New comer Elvis Costello with opener Willie Alexander appeared at the Leona in February of 1978.  Post Gazette reviewer Barry Paris panned the show saying it was too loud and calling it a "lively although not terribly note worthy performance".  On March 12, 1978 the up and coming band Van Halen opened a concert for Montrose and Journey at the Leona. Van Halen has just released their first single a cover of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" the day before the show. Little Feat and John Hall appeared in April of 1978.

The last event to be held at the Leona was a concert by Rock Hall of Fame member Patti Smith in July of 1978.  The Iron City Houserockers opened the show. Unable to make the theater pay off financially the owners shuttered the Leona. For the next six years the Leona's marque read ....

"The Patti Smith Group ....Frid y"  

The Lost Leona

The Leona sat empty and neglected for another six years.  Without routine maintenance the roof was damaged beyond repair.  The Homestead Economic Revitalization Corporation and the Homestead Historical Society began a campaign to save the Leona in 1979.   They sought $4 million in development funds to convert the Leona building into a mini-mall and 40 apartments.  The Pennsylvania state legislature declared the Leona a historic landmark worthy of preservation.  HUD offered a $1 million grant to the Homestead Economic Revitalization Corporate if they could raise the remaining $3 million.  Unable to find investors, the plans fell through and the building was abandoned.  

In January of 1983 Sheetz Inc. purchased the Leona Theater for $100,000. The building was demolished in March of 1983 to build a 24-hour Sheetz convenience store and gas station.  The rubble of the Leona was added to the pile of historic Pittsburgh music venues torn down to build historic parking lots and gas stations

The large Kimball organ and its 1,200 pipes was salvaged and sold to a private owner in Omaha, Nebraska for $10,000. He restored the organ installing it in his basement where he holds organ society meetings. 

Author and historian Eric Davin of the University of Pittsburgh and Anita Alverio made a documentary film about the Leona that was shown on November 9, 1983 in Homestead.  Working with the Leona's original publicity agent Darrell V, Martin they combed through scrapbooks and clippings to put together the story of the Leona. In the film they interviewed staff of the Leona, vaudeville entertainers who had performed there, and patrons who attended its many events.

Sheetz sold the Leona site to another proprietor a few years later. The gas station was closed and it is now a locally owned convenience store. Homestead's population has dwindled to 3,000.
  


Leona Theater Interior
Homestead Eighth Avenue and Ann Street 1926
Kimball Organ
Ill Fated Sex Pistols Show
Leona Theater Site 2011