Benedum Center chandelier

Benedum Center Celebrates 30th Birthday

Mon, Sep 25, 2017

Written by: Lily Rybarczyk

Happy Birthday, Benedum Center! Today marks the 30th anniversary of the cultural icon we all know and love, the beautiful Benedum Center for the Performing Arts.

A History of Greatness

The Benedum Center originally opened on February 27, 1928 as the Stanley Theatre, a deluxe movie palace and biggest theater in western Pennsylvania. With a 65-cent admission, performances provided a welcome lift of spirits during the Great Depression. The theater was purchased and remodeled by the Cinemette Corporation in 1976, before DiCesare Engler Productions turned the venue into a rock house in 1977. DiCesare Engler kept the Stanley a formidable venue, booking artists such as Frank Zappa, The Grateful Dead, Bob Marley and Prince. Under this production team, the Stanley was named Number One Auditorium in the U.S. by Billboard Magazine in 1979.

Stanley Theatre marqueeStanley Theater marquee wide shot

Photos of the original Stanley Theatre, which opened in 1928.

A Historic Restoration

When Pittsburgh slid into a post-industrial slump in the late ‘70s, H.J. “Jack” Heinz II envisioned a colossal transformation that would turn the downtrodden city into a thriving hub of world-class art and entertainment. The first step in making that vision a reality was the restoration of Heinz Hall as home of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Next, Heinz set his sights on what would become the first project of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust: the historic restoration of the Stanley Theatre. Restoration is the key word – the goal was to return the theater to its original 1928 opening night elegance. The restoration, led by founding Cultural Trust President and CEO Carol Brown, would take three years, $43 million and countless hours of hard work.

Benedum Center exterior sketchBenedum Center interior sketch

Exterior and interior sketches for the restored theater, which would eventually reopen as the Benedum Center in 1987.

The project involved hundreds of artisans, restoring everything from the lighting to the carpet. It included cast, plaster moldings with aluminum leaf, fresco paintings, and the reproduction of two sets of the front-of-house carpeting from the original mill (which has since gone out of business). The Grand Lobby mirrors, marble and woodwork – as well as all but one of the 90 crystal chandeliers, torchieres and sconces that you see every time you visit the Benedum – are original. Through commitment to the project and by following the very strict restoration standards set by the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Commonwealth Bureau of Historic Preservation and the Historic Commission of Pennsylvania, the Cultural Trust was able to register the Benedum with the National Register of Historic Places.

Restoration did allow for a few new improvements: the stage was deepened to hold large opera and musical sets, making it the third largest theatrical stage in the U.S. An annex addition was built behind the stage, creating office and rehearsal space. Finally, the large front marquee was redone to hold the new name.

A Grand Reopening

Benedum Center opening weekend advertisement September 25-28, 1987

On September 25, 1987, the theater opened as the Benedum Center for Performing Arts, named for a generous gift from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation. A four-day public festival, Curtain’s Up!, featured four evening performances to celebrate the grand reopening of the dynamic piece of Pittsburgh history. For the first time in decades, theatergoers were treated to the original grandeur of one of the largest and most elegant movie palaces of the 1920s era. Opening night featured a show fittingly titled “Purely Pittsburgh,” an original musical written by Dan Langan and produced by Manuel Levine, featuring composers and performers with Pittsburgh connections. The musical variety show was a salute to the Stanley’s past, demonstrated the Benedum’s capacity to stage large-cast, full orchestra shows.

Benedum Center Post Gazette advertisement opening weekendBenedum Center Pittsburgh Press article

Left: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette advertisement for opening night at the Benedum. Right: Pittsburgh Press article previewing the Benedum's transformation.

A Look Back at 30 Years

Since its opening in 1987, the Benedum has staged more than 7,000 performances! Pollstar® consistently ranks the Benedum among the nation’s most utilized theaters based on attendance, with audiences filling the theater for more than 230 performances annually.

Over 30 years, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust has maintained that opening night opulence, while finding a little room for improvement. The 17-year-old analog-based sound system was replaced with a digital sound system that improved the theater’s ability to tailor sound engineering for a wider range of theatrical productions and live music performances. In 2012, all 2,806 of the Benedum seats were reupholstered. The Cultural Trust is constantly searching for ways to improve our patron experience, matching the excellence of the experience to the grandeur of the theater. Most recently, a Promenade Bar and new bathrooms were added to the Clark Building extension, allowing for a more spacious and luxurious member experience (and less wait time)!

Today, the Benedum celebrates 30 years, and, on February 27, it will celebrate 90 years as an operating theater! Through the years and many changes, we still trust the Benedum to lift our spirits. Home to the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Pittsburgh CLO, Pittsburgh Opera and PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh, the stage at the Benedum is always set for a good time!

a full house at the Benedum Center

Want to get a closer look at the Benedum’s historic restoration, aluminum-leaf guilding and the grand chandelier? Make sure to stop in on October 8th during Doors Open Pittsburgh!

Images: Pittsburgh Cultural Trust Records, 1926-2000, CTC.2000.02, Curtis Theatre Collection, Archives & Special Collections Department, University of Pittsburgh Library System.

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