Stanley Theater - Big Band Era


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Pittsburgh's Palace of Amusement Hosts the Big Bands
The Stanley Theater, now called the Benedum Center, is one of Pittsburgh’s architectural and entertainment crown jewels.  Built in 1928 as a grand palace for live shows and movies, it has been a vital center of live entertainment in Western Pennsylvania for over 80 years.  Generations of Pittsburgh’s have taken their dates, spouses, and families to the Stanley see many memorable performances.  From the late 1920s until the mid 1940s the Stanley offered stage shows and movies.  The most popular acts of the big band era such as Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway made the Stanley a required stop on their tours.  

With the fading of the big band era, the Stanley became a first run movie house from the mid 1940s through the early 1970s. In 1977 DiCesare-Engler Productions purchased the Stanley and made it the top popular music concert hall in the U.S. The Stanley hosted several concerts each week by top rock, jazz, country, and R&B artists and also presented touring Broadway musicals. Billboard Magazine named the Stanley Theater the "Number One Auditorium in the U.S." several times during the 1970s and 1980s. 

Needing a home for its performance organizations and entertainment series the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust purchased the Stanley in 1984. After an extensive three year remodeling project to expand the stage, rehearsal space, and offices the theater was reopened in 1987 as the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts. Today the Bendeum is the home of the Pittsburgh Opera, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, and the Pittsburgh Broadway Series. The Benedum also hosts many nationally televised popular music concerts. 

Over its 80 year history the Stanley has been the scene of many great musical performances along with a flood, two bombings, two near riots and concerts for the unemployed. The Stanley was also the launching point for several musical stars and a movie star.  The story of the Stanley Theater begins with two ambitious Pittsburgh movie moguls.

Davis and Clark on the Movie Frontier

Harry Davis and James Bly Clark were pioneering leaders in the movie industry. Harry Davis was Pittsburgh’s leading theatrical and movie impresario.  He opened the world’s very first movie theater the “Nickelodeon” in downtown Pittsburgh in June of 1905.  At the Nickelodeon Davis invented the accompaniment of silent movies with live music.  Within a year there were hundreds of small nickelodeon theaters around the country.  As demand for movie entertainment grew Davis built two large ornate theaters in downtown Pittsburgh. He constructed the Davis Theatre on Smithfield Street in 1815 and the Million Dollar Grand Theatre (the Warner) on Fifth Avenue in 1918.  He also presented plays, musicals, and concert at the many venues he owned in Pittsburgh.  James Bly Clark, a Pittsburgh native was one of the founders of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie company.  By the 1920s Clark owned dozens of movie theaters across Western Pennsylvania.  In 1925 Davis purchased Clark’s theaters and made Clark the president of Harry Davis Enterprises.  After Harris Davis suffered a crippling stroke in 1927, all of the Davis theaters were sold to the Stanley Company of America for three million dollars.  James Bly Clark and Harry Davis were given seats on the board on Stanley Company which operated 233 theaters on the East Coast and in the Midwest.

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, musicals, and concerts. Pittsburgh was known as the city of theaters. To meet the growing demand for entertainment a theater building boom took place in downtown Pittsburgh. The Loews movie chain built the 2,676 seat ornate Penn Theater in 1927. Billed as the "Temple of Cinema" it was a movie palace with a vaulted Venetian ceiling, massive ornamental columns, marble staircases, bronze and crystal chandeliers and silk drapes. To outdo the Penn Theater James Bly financed the construction of a large more grand theater.

Clark Finances the Stanley

James Clark used the profits from the sale of his theaters to build the 23 story Clark building on Liberty and Seventh Avenue and the adjoining Stanley Theatre on Seventh and Penn Avenues in 1927. The new grand entertainment palace, promoted as a "thespian fairyland", was constructed at a cost of 3 million dollars. Accounting for inflation Clark’s 3 million dollar investment in 1928 would have cost $38 million in 2011 dollars. It was named the Stanley Theater as it was to be operated by Bly’s organization the Stanley Company. Warner Brothers acquired the Stanley Company in 1928 and established its regional offices in the penthouse suite of the new Clark Building. Operated by the Stanley Division of Warner Brothers, the Stanley Theater was Pittsburgh's main first run house for all Warner Brothers film releases.

Ornately decorated and having a seating capacity of 3,750 the Stanley Theater was the grandest and largest movie theater in Western Pennsylvania. Designed by the Hoffman Henon Company, it was bejeweled in noble baroque splendor reminiscent of European palaces. The Stanley Company hailed it as “Pittsburgh’s Palace of Amusement”. The gilded domed auditorium was adorned with the dazzling main crystal chandelier that was 20 foot high 12 foot wide and weighed 4,700 pounds. The interior was adorned with over 90 crystal chandeliers, torchieres and sconces along with 1,500 feet of brass rail.  A powerful $125,000 Wurlitzer pipe organ was installed to accompany silent movies.


Patrons entered from Seventh Avenue into the high ceiling Grand Lobby, Two staircases led to the upper lobby and the balconies.  One local newspaper writer dubbed the Stanley the “movie palace version of Versailles” as the walls of the landings on two staircases in the had 18-foot high mirrors decorated in the style of the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles. Women's lounges were furnished with pieces in the Louis the Fifteenth style. The gentlemen’s lounge offered a club like atmosphere where one could smoke.  


Outside the giant blue and beige marquee was brilliantly lit with 1,948 light bulbs. The exterior wall on Penn Avenue was adorned with a large blue and beige billboard to advertise coming “photoplay” attractions. 

The Stanley Company described the new theater as a magnificent Pittsburgh edifice spun from the azure material of thought, dedicated to the people and a policy of "the Ultimate in Entertainment". “It stands as a palace of beauty in world’s greatest industrial city “.


Gala Grand Opening launches the Palace of Pleasure

The gala grand opening of the Stanley Theater was held on Feb. 27, 1928, The Pittsburgh newspapers promoted the opening heavily extolling its grandeur. The Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph ran a 16 page section on the Stanley. More than 4,000 people attended the opening.  The evening became with a dinner was held at the William Penn Hotel ballroom.  Pittsburgh Mayor Charles H. Kline spoke at an opening 8:30 PM ceremony that was broadcast live on radio station WCAE. The guests of honor included Gov. John S. Fisher and Adolph Zukor of Paramount Studios. Admission was $1.65 for orchestra seats and $1.10 for balcony seats.  A lavish stage show preceded the showing of the Anita Loos’s silent film “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”. David Broudy conducted the 40 piece Stanley Theater Orchestra. Virgia Futrelle sang the Star Spangled Banner.  A musical revue titled “The Spirit of Pittsburgh was performed by a chorus of 30 male singers. Phil Spitalny conducted his all-girl orchestra in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Cappriciio Italiano. Antole Friedland the Victor Recording Orchestra performed a jazz dance review featuring twenty glamorous show girls. After the movie organist Alex Taylor played the exit march on the mighty Wulitzer.




Thus the Stanley began its long history as premiere music and movie venue. In March of 1928 the Stanley presented Gilda Grey in person and on film in Devil Dance. Diva Sophie Tucker appeared on March 12. The Stanley presented “Tendorloin” the first ever “talkie” movie shown in Pittsburgh on July 16, 1928. It starred Pittsburgh native Doloress Coselte, but was barely audible.

Stay All Day for Stage Shows and a Movie

The Stanley operated as a movie, vaudeville house, and concert venue throughout the '30s and '40s. A ticket bought admission to an afternoon or evening of great entertainment with a live stage show followed by a first run movie. Pittsburghers could go in before noon for a quarter and stay all day. They could stick around and to see a second stage show. No one was kicked out. The cheap tickets bought seats in “peanut heaven” located in the lower and upper balconies. Many Pittsburgher’s have fond memories of the Stanley as the place that they took their first dates. During the hard times of the Great Depression it was a great escape into a world of music, dancing, and movie magic.

A broad range of musicians, dancers, and comedians appeared on the Stanley Theater stage. During the Jazz and Swing eras the Stanley was one of the nation’s top venues for the big bands. Pittsburgh was a required stop on the touring circuit between New York and Chicago. Many of the bands did week long runs at the Stanley. Among the swing bands that appeared frequently at the Stanley were Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Lionel Hampton, Gene Krupa, Woody Herman, Charlie Barnet, and Eddie Duchin. Cab Calloway and his Cotton Club Orchestra, Duke Ellington, and Chick Webb with Ella Fitzgerld, and Jimmie Lunceford were among the few African American bands that headlined at the Stanley.  The more mainstream dance orchestras that appeared regularly at the Stanley were Paul Whitman (“the King of Jazz”), Sammy Kaye, Kay Kaiser, Lawrence Welk, Bob Crosby, Carmen Cavailero, Russ Morgan, Ozzie Nelson and his Orchestra, Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadian, and Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians. Novelty acts that appeared were Xavier Cugat and his Tango Orchestra, Spike Jones and his City Slickers, and Ina Ray and her All Girl Orchestra. 

The Andrew Sisters was the top draw at the Stanley in 1941 appearing three times.  Appearing for a week long engagement with Gene Krupa in July of 1941 they scored the then second highest ticket sales in the Stanley theatre’s history. The manager paid them a bonus.  Lawrence Welk drew 60,000 fans to the Stanley during a six day booking in February of 1943.  

Vauudeville Acts

Vaudeville era stars Eddie Cantor, George Jessel, and Rudy Valle appeared at the Stanley several times. Popular vocal groups who appeared at venue were the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots, the Andrew Sisters, and the King Sisters. Major singers who crooned on the Stanley’s stage were Frank Sinatra, Tony Marin Judy Garland, Martha Raye, Harriet Hilliard (Harriet of the future Ozzie and Harriet TV show), and Peggy Lee. The top comedians who bought laughs to Pittsburgh audiences included Jack Benny, Joe E. Brown, Laurel and Hardy, Milton Berle, Jimmy Durante. the Ritz Brothers, Lucille Ball & Dezi Arnez, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and Stepin Fetchit. The Three Stooges did their zany live stage show at the Stanley many times over the years. Chico Marx appeared with his orchestra on March 13, 1942. Dancers who hoofed on the Stanley stage were Bill “Bojanges” Robinson, Sally Rand, Mickey Rooney, and Ray Bolger. 


Pittsburgh musicians who made it big nationally returned home on tour to appear at the Stanley. Earl Hines who was a big star in Chicago with his daily national radio show returned to Pittsburgh for a week of shows in June of 1932. Maxine Sullivan who had a string of hit records headlined at the Stanley on November 25, 1938. Perry Como appeared several times with the Ted Weems Orchestra. Roy Eldridge. the star trumpeter of the Gene Krupa band lite up the Stanley's stage. Singer Lena Horne who left Pittsburgh in 1940 to become a movie star returned in 1944 to headline at the Stanley with George Auld and his orchestra. Guitarist Joe Negri performed with Shep Fields and his Orchestra in 1944. Sax player Babe Russin appeared as a member of the bands of Benny Goodman and the Dorsey Brothers. Legendary pianist Dodo Marmaroso performed with Gene Krupa, Charlie Barnet,Tommy, and Artie Shaw. Singer Vaughn Monroe and his orchestra headlined several times during the 1940s. 

Roy Eldridge Back Stage at the Stanley                        Lena Horne at the Stanley 1944

Movie Star Dick Powell is Discovered at the Stanley

Singer and dancer Dick Powell became the popular Master of Ceremonies of the Stanley Theater stage shows. An executive of the Warner Brothers record label Vocalion caught Powell’s act at the Stanley and was impressed with his singing and stage presence. Warner Brothers offered Powell a part in the musical Blessed Event. He performed his last show as MC on April 15, 1932 before his trip to film in Hollywood. Powell returned to the Stanley after the film was shot. After the box office success of Powell’s film debut in 1933 Warner Brothers signed Powell to a long term film contract. 

In 1933 Powell starred in the classic musical 42nd Street. A grand Pittsburgh premiere of 42nd Street was held at the Stanley in 1933. To celebrate Powell’s success the city of Pittsburgh put on a show that rivaled the welcome that it gave to Charles Lindbergh. Warner Brothers president Jack Warner brought a delegation of Hollywood stars to Pittsburgh for the premiere. The Hollywood stars and Dick Powell rode through the streets of Pittsburgh in a parade that drew 200,000 people. Dick Powell led a live stage show at the Stanley before the movie’s premiere. 42nd Street was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1934 and ranked as one of the best all time movie musicals by the American Film Institute.

Max Adkins Mentors Strayhorn, Mancini, and Fielding

The Stanley Theater Orchestra backed the dancers, singers, and comedian who appeared at the venue. One of the members of the band, sax player Max Adkins, wrote musical arrangement for the Stanley Orchestra and for band that appeared at the theater. He became an in demand arranger for Jimmy Dorsey, Alvino Ray and nationally known big bands. In 1939 Adkins became the conductor of the 25 piece orchestra. In a basement office under the Stanley Theater stage Max taught arranging and composition to a several students who went on to shape the music of the big band era, the movies, and television. Billy Strayhorn, Henry Mancini, and Jerry Fielding were Max’s students. Studying with Max at the Stanley, his students had the opportunity to see all of the big bands and meet the band leaders. Adkins introduced his students to band leaders to launch their careers. Max introduced Henry Mancini to Benny Goodman and told Benny "I'd like this kid to do an arrangement for you". That introduction led to Mancini's work with Glenn Miller and many award winning Hollywood movie scores. With an introduction from Max Adkins, Jerry Fielding became the arranger for the Alvino Ray and went to arrange for Tommy Dorsey, Les Brown, movies, and television. 

Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn
In December 1938, Duke Ellington was in Pittsburgh for a week long engagement at the Stanley Theater. A friend of Strayhorn’s arranged for him to audition for Ellington in a dressing room at the Stanley. Billy played Ellington’s music and some of his own tunes. Ellington called in other members of his band saying "Listen to this kid play." Ellington gave Strayhorn a song to write lyrics to and another song to arrange. The band played Strayhorn’s arrangement on its last night in Pittsburgh. After the show After the show Ellington told Billy that he wanted him in his organization, paid him $20 for the arrangement, and gave him directions take the “A Train” to his apartment in Harlem. Strayhorn used Ellington’s directions to write the theme song of the big band era “Take the A Train” before he headed to New York in January of 1939. Strayhorn became Ellington’s co-writer and arranger and wrote many of Ellington’s timeless songs.

Hard Times, Floods and a Jitterbug Riot

Coming to the aid of the unemployed and needy families suffering from the hard times of the Depression the Stanley Theater hosted a benefit concert on November 25th 1930. A capacity crowd was entertained by Dick Powell, Phil Baker, and Fred Stone. That event set a precedent for another historical concert for the unemployed that would be held in the 1980s. 

Disaster struck the Stanley Theater on St. Patrick's Day in 1936. On that day a great flood engulfed much of downtown Pittsburgh. Flood waters reached within two feet of the Stanley Theater’s balcony. The ground floor was under water for three days. Several men who were trapped at the theater for three were rescued by a police motorboat. The console of the mighty Wulizer organ was destroyed.  The Stanley was able to reopen in April of 1936. 


On May 16, 1942 Benny Goodman’s band was performing at the Stanley when hundreds of young fans started dancing the wild Jitterbug in the aisles. Unable to get the dancers back in their seats, the management called in the Pittsburgh police. Trombonist Lou McGarrity, who was leading the band that night while Benny was away getting an army physical, told the police "Go way man. We've got this place jumping”. The police restrained the dancers to restore order. The next day Pittsburgh Press entertainment writer Harold V Cohon scolded the concert goers calling them “a couple of thousand candidates for the insane asylum.” He described the scene at the Stanley as a “horrible site with pandemonium and hysteria” over Benny Goodman’s music. 

End of the Live Stage Shows

The Stanley ended its run of stage shows in 1946. The last band to appear before a movie was Carmen Cavailero and his Orchestra on December 12, 1946. The Stanley became a movie house only and went into a slow decline. The big dance bands moved on the Danceland in Westview Park and the Syria Mosque in Oakland.