by Rob Taylor Jr., Courier Staff Writer
It’s been 105 years since the Regent Theatre in East Liberty first opened its doors.
Its architecture held in the highest regard, as the likes of legendary silent film actors Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford would be seen at the Regent.
Over the generations, the Regent experienced great times and bad times, and when the theater closed in October 1979 and hadn’t reopened for 20 years, those, say, of the Baby Boomers generation, wondered if the historic venue would ever reopen.
It’s been 16 years of sustained performances, concerts, films and events for the now-named Kelly Strayhorn Theater, and on Tuesday, Sept. 10, the organization announced it’s undergoing a financial campaign to keep the theater alive and well for future generations.
Dubbed the “Bridge To The Future” campaign, Kelly Strayhorn Theater executive director Janera Solomon announced to supporters that the organization has already raised 70 percent of its $500,000 goal for repairs and renovations. The organization is reaching out to the community—individuals, companies, foundations—to help raise the remaining 30 percent, or $150,000, by the end of the year.
“Left uncared for, spaces like the Kelly Strayhorn Theatre can disappear,” Solomon said in front of the building’s entrance, Sept. 10. “We’re here this morning to recommit to a bright future for this organization. We want to ensure that the Kelly Strayhorn Theater’s here for another hundred years.”
Solomon told the New Pittsburgh Courier exclusively that the funds are being used to make repairs to an aging roof and HVAC system. There are also improvements needed in the building lobby and the theater itself. Solomon said replacing the seats inside the theater is also on the list of renovations list, but it’s not a priority.
“The future for this theater obviously would be a completely new renovation, but before we can get there, we have to take care of it as it is now,” Solomon told the Courier. “It hasn’t had any repairs in about 15 years, so it is important to do some of these items that are high-priority items so that we can position ourselves for a stronger future.”
How can people contribute? “They can contribute online, they can send a check, they can come here and drop off a contribution, they can purchase a brick and engrave the brick (in front of the building),” Solomon said.
The Hillman Family Foundation and the Allegheny Regional Asset District have made a financial contribution to the campaign, and Solomon hopes other foundations and organizations will do the same to help the organization reach its $500,000 goal.
“This is a community gem,” Solomon said. “Now I know there are people in many communities that have old theaters and they think their theater is a community gem. I won’t argue with them. This one, we know for sure, is a gem, because of where it stands, right here at this corner of Penn and Highland.”
Dan Gilman, Mayor Bill Peduto’s chief of staff, said the mayor directed him to ensure the vibrancy of historic theaters like the Kelly Strayhorn. “Arts equals economic development,” Gilman told the crowd, Sept. 10. “When you talk about arts organizations, arts is not the extra, arts is the base. Arts is what brings people to a community, it’s what supports the small businesses around you.”
Gilman added: “When you have the plaque of where the theater stood, you have displacement. When you have the theater still standing, you have equity and inclusion, and that is the power of this theater.”
Solomon announced in August she was stepping down as executive director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater at the end of the year. She’s credited with increasing the theater’s annual operating budget from $300,000 to $1.35 million. She also managed the successful merger of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater with the Pittsburgh Dance Alloy, expanding the theater’s programming and impact. Kelly Strayhorn Theater board chair Yvonne Campos called Solomon “an outstanding visionary leader” in a statement to the media, Aug. 2.
Solomon is hopeful the community will band together and raise the additional funds needed to bridge the Kelly Strayhorn Theater into the future.
“We believe when the community has a place to gather for expression of art and creativity, we’re all stronger for it,” Solomon said to the crowd. “A Pittsburgh that stands against hate as the signs tell us, stands in love. And we love our theater.”
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