News

Historic Pa. theater is reborn as a concert hall

Written by Bill O'Driscoll/WESA | May 9, 2019 9:17 AM
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The 90-year-old Roxian Theatre re-opens as a concert hall this week. (Bill O'Driscoll/WESA)

The Roxian Theatre opened its doors in 1929 - in the waning days of vaudeville, the very art form it was built to house. The McKees Rocks theater became primarily a movie house, a use that lasted until 1979, when the rise of suburban multiplexes forced it to change again, this time into a banquet facility called the Emerald Room. 

After the Emerald Room ran its course, the transition was tougher: For 16 years, the historic theater sat empty. But now, following a $9 million overhaul, the Roxian is again focusing on live entertainment. This time, instead of burlesque comedians, it will welcome touring musicians.

The Roxian re-opens this week as Pittsburgh's newest concert hall, one officials hope will spark redevelopment in the struggling Ohio River town of 6,000.

The revival is obvious to even casual passersby on Chartiers Avenue. The three-story building's off-white façade gleams, and it's hard to miss the newly installed replica of the two-story "blade"-style sign with art-deco letters reading "Roxian."

Inside, the change is even more apparent: Spectacular preserved and restored architectural elements frame the proscenium stage, and are complemented by a sleek contemporary makeover of the rest of the building, including state-of-the-art sound and lighting. (The architect was Perfido, Weiskopf, Wagstaff + Goettel.)

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Preserved architectural elements include the ceiling above the Roxian's stage. (Bill O'Driscoll/WESA)

The Roxian is run by an ownership group led by John Pergal, who also owns the Thunderbird Lounge, in Lawrenceville. The Roxian seats more than 1,400 - the only regular concert venue in Pittsburgh of its size. Its plan is to book acts that might otherwise bypass Pittsburgh because they'd draw too many people for, say, the 800-capacity Mr. Smalls, in Millvale, and too few for Stage AE, which accommodates 2,400.

Owners say things are off to a good start. The Roxian's first show is Thursday, a free concert by British funk band The New Mastersounds, who also play a ticketed concert Friday. In the first month alone, other acts include country rocker Steve Earle; famed jazz collective Snarky Puppy; genre-defying bassist Thundercat; and reggae legends Toots & The Maytals.

"The booking's been remarkable, given that we've never had a show here," says co-owner John Sieminski. "And the ticket sales have been robust."

The Roxian's owners are counting partly on McKees Rocks' location: It's just a 10 minute drive from Downtown, and readily accessible from the McKees Rocks Bridge, the West End Bridge, I-79 and I-279.

The building's amenities are considerable as well. The first-floor general-admission area includes a small pit in front of the stage. A balcony has fixed seating for nearly 400 - good news for concert-goers frustrated by venues that have standing room only. There is a full bar on each of the three floors, with 20 beers on tap. And - another rarity at music spots -- the bathrooms are plentiful and spacious.

"It has a perfect mix between the old feel and vibe, and the brand-new," says Sieminski.

A grassy lot adjacent to the Roxian will host food trucks, he said. And parking might be easier than at many local venues: In addition to street parking, the 130-space municipal lot behind the theater is free after business hours. And Sieminski says the Roxian hopes to work out arrangements with local businesses for more spaces.

The Roxian's revitalization grew out of McKees Rocks' 2003 strategic master plan, says Taris Vrcek, executive director of the nonprofit McKees Rocks Community Redevelopment Corp. (MRCDC). According to U.S. Census figures, about 29 percent of McKees Rocks resident live in poverty. Like many small towns in the region, it's struggled to attract new investment.

The theater is considered a crucial component in reversing that trend, Vrcek says.

"The Roxian is singular in that, if you can imagine its ability to attract literally thousands of people to our downtown on a weekly basis, and do so in a very high-profile way," he says. "It really is something unique in the region."

Assembling funding for the project was a 15-year challenge for the MRCDC: Vrcek calls the process "excruciating." Ultimately, it involved a combination of loans, grants, private investment, federal historic tax credits, and tax abatements from the borough government and the Sto-Rox School District.

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A view of the Roxian's stage from the general-admission floor. (Bill O'Driscoll/WESA)

Some renovations began after the MRCDC bought the building, in 2011. The project's final piece was added when Pergal's group, Roxian Live, LLC, bought the building from the MRCDC, in late 2017.

Using historic theaters to spur redevelopment is a familiar strategy around the nation, and in the region: Think of the Palace Theatre, in Greensburg, or even the Benedum Center (formerly the Stanley Theatre), in Downtown Pittsburgh.

A historic theater "immediately creates that market for nearby restaurants, and other type of amenities," says Vrcek.

The Roxian is near a shopping center anchored by a supermarket; the building housing both the Sto-Rox Public Library and the Father Ryan Arts Center; and an Eat'n Park, for starters. Other long-time neighbors include Hollowood Music & Sound, which designed the Roxian's sound system - and which for several years has worked with the MRCDC to stage Feastival, an annual music-and-food-trucks event that Vrcek says was "proof of concept" that music fans would trek to the Rocks.

There are also neighborhood bars and eateries.

"We would love to see the existing vendors and merchants grow with us," says Sieminski.

"Hopefully what the Roxian does is ignite all of that, unify it, and really cause a change of perception both internally in McKees Rocks and to the larger community that this is a new day, and this is a new standard for the town," says Vrcek.

Sieminski acknowledges that the concert business is a tough one.

"There's a whole lot of risk involved here," he says.

But, he adds, "We think we have the right team, the right facility, the right location, the right borough, and the right cooperative spirit with everybody. But now we need to sell tickets and have successful shows."

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