An oral history of the Squirrel Hill Theater from former patrons, employees, and others who knew it well | Screen | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

An oral history of the Squirrel Hill Theater from former patrons, employees, and others who knew it well

click to enlarge Squirrel Hill Theater marquee after it closed - PHOTO: STEVEN HAINES
Photo: Steven Haines
Squirrel Hill Theater marquee after it closed
Pittsburgh cinephiles recently mourned the official death of a local institution when the Squirrel Hill Theater, a historic movie house closed in 2010, was torn down to make room for a housing complex. In mid-May, the theater was reduced to rubble by demolition equipment, putting to rest any hopes that the neighborhood theater would be resurrected.

Originally opened in the 1930s, Squirrel Hill Theater was a destination for a diverse array of films, its marquee boasting independent arthouse titles along with popcorn blockbusters and family-friendly features. Ultimately, like many small theaters, it fell victim to progress, as the industry switched from 35mm film to digital projectors.

Pittsburgh City Paper decided to pay tribute to this lost landmark with an oral history featuring testimonies from former employees and film lovers, as well as the family of the late Bernie Elinoff, a long-time manager who became a fixture to the countless patrons who passed through the Squirrel Hill Theater lobby.


Bernie

Ed Elinoff, son of Bernie Elinoff: He was a manager of the theater. He actually was an usher in that theater back in the ‘30s. I think that was also his first job. Then he went to work in the office downtown, booking movies and other things in the corporate office. He did a lot of things in his life. Back in the '70s, early '70s, he was in the corporate office of a company that had a lot of theaters underneath it, and Squirrel Hill was one of them. He was in charge of all the different theaters in the area as a district manager.

But bottom line, he wasn't really happy doing that. He wanted to go back to the Squirrel Hill where he felt most comfortable, and where he knew everybody who would come into the theater during that time period.

click to enlarge Long-time Squirrel Hill Theater manager Bernie Elinoff, who passed away in 2015 - PHOTO: LYNN SNYDERMAN
Photo: Lynn Snyderman
Long-time Squirrel Hill Theater manager Bernie Elinoff, who passed away in 2015

Lynn Snyderman
, niece of Bernie Elinoff: He was a wonderful man. He was really, like, one of the mayors of Squirrel Hill. He knew everyone that would ever go to the movies. Because he worked as the manager of the Squirrel Hill theater for more than 50 years, I believe.

Often as I was growing up, we would go to the theater often and Uncle Bernie was there every night. While I was there to greet every patron who would walk in the door. And he knew everyone. I mean, everyone, they all knew him. He had been there for so many years. He was kind, he was always smiling when people would walk in, I've never heard him utter a single cross word in all the years that I, you know, that I knew him. And he was sort of a beloved fixture there until he retired [in 1986].


“... the theater in Pittsburgh”

Ed Elinoff: To explain the Squirrel Hill Theater to you, it was the theater in Pittsburgh for so many years. Before they had the multiplex, the Squirrel Hill Theater stood alone by being a neighborhood theater that everyone would just gravitate to. Every Academy Award movie, every, you know, really popular movie, always was at Squirrel Hill.

I mean, obviously, The Manor was in a better location because all the stores and everything were right there. But somehow, the Squirrel Hill Theater always seemed to get the better movies than The Manor. And I'm not exactly sure why, but that's just the way it was. The Manor had a lot more kiddie matinees. I remember when I was a kid, there was, like, 17 cartoons, and then the feature movie, and it was just a hotbed of, you know, kids and popcorn, or kids running around during the movie. Squirrel Hill was more subdued and had more of the adult movies, more Academy Award-winning movies.

Lynn Snyderman: Going to the movies back then was much more of a production than it is today. You know, you could get a little more dressed up and it would be a much bigger deal. Now there's so much video and other ways of being entertained available. It's not quite so special. But back then it was special to go to the movies. I think [Bernie] really contributed, he added to everyone's special movie experience.

Marcel Walker, Pittsburgh-based illustrator, comic-book artist, and photographer: So my family lived in Squirrel Hill from 1987 to 1990. And this was in my late teens. … And we lived right in the heart of Squirrel Hill, right off of Shady and Forbes. And yeah, we were right there, which was lovely.

Ultimately, it was my favorite of all the places my family —‌ ‌my mother, my two sisters, and myself —‌ ‌lived because just the nature of the house and its proximity to stuff. Everything was right there. I mean, there was a drugstore right at the corner. There was, like, several video rental places where we could rent movies and stuff. There was a Blockbuster and Heads Together and another one out there. … And yeah, there were the two movie theaters, The Manor, of course, which was a little closer to us, and Squirrel Hill Theater. And my one regret is that I didn't go to the movies more frequently while we lived there. But I think we always do that thing, where we take the resources we have immediately available more for granted.

Let’s All Go to the Movies

Marcel Walker: I remember seeing the movie Face/Off with John Travolta and Nic Cage. And I saw it with this young lady who I had the biggest crush on when I was going to art school, which was a few years prior, but I stayed in touch with her, and I said, “You want to go to the movies?” She said, "Yes." For me, this is like the biggest thing in the world. I loved this girl. So it was great. She was kind of working through some things at the time and, real casual, I was like, “Wanna go to a movie again next week?” She instantly just went, "Yes." It blew my mind because I really didn't expect that I'd be able to hang out with her twice in that time period.

So I forget which movie came first. I know we also saw Batman Forever. It was within a week of each other that I saw those two goofy movies. So I have a great association with the movies, but I have this really strong association with the Squirrel Hill theater because of that.


But there was one afternoon I just stayed for two movies. I saw the movie Armageddon with Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck and whoever the hell else was in that movie. ... But I also saw the first Zorro movie, I think that was the Mark of Zorro with Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. And that was in one trip. And it was great because I wanted to see both of those movies. And they were both right there. And there's no real reason for that day to stand out except it was just a really nice summer day and I had the day to myself and I got to spend it in that theater that I was able to get to so easily.

Lynn Snyderman: [Bernie] loved everything about the theater and movies. He was a real movie buff, it was really one of his favorite things to do. And even after he retired, he moved to Florida for half the year and he would always go to the movies. So he saw every movie there was.

I would ask him to recommend movies because he would see them first. The Squirrel Hill Theater used to be sort of the first-run movie theater that would get all the best movies, they would get the most sophisticated movies, they would get the movies with the biggest stars. And he would always get to see them first. And of course, as the manager, he'd see every one, you know, he was right there. So he could watch every movie. So he would be kind of our family's resource for what movies were worth seeing, what movies had the best acting, who he thought was going to get the Oscar for the Best Actress that year. You know, he really studied this. And he loved everything about it.
click to enlarge Newspaper ad for the opening of the 1960 French New Wave film Breathless at Squirrel Hill Theater
Newspaper ad for the opening of the 1960 French New Wave film Breathless at Squirrel Hill Theater


Ed Elinoff: It's kind of an eerie story. My father died in 2015. But a few weeks after he died, I was flipping channels, and I was on Turner Classic Movies and came across Casablanca. And that was one of my father's favorite movies. Anyway, in my mind, I was going to give my father a call. And then I realized I can't because he just died. So I said, "I can't watch this movie now for some reason." Some eeriness came over me.

So the next day, I'm driving to work, and I'm flipping radio stations. And I come across the theme song from Casablanca. And it was almost like some sort of sign from my father saying, "OK, you can go all on without me and you can continue to watch movies."

He could look at a movie from the 1930s. Just having to see it on TV. And he'll say, "Oh, yeah, that movie was this, and five actors were in that movie." He had such a mind when it came to movies, throughout the years, he was just the master of it.

For his 90th birthday, I had a little collage of different movies. It was at the theater. And I basically said he was like the captain of that ship in that everyone who was anyone ever showed up to Squirrel Hill because it was the place to go.

Marcel Walker: I saw The Big Hit there with Lou Diamond Phillips and Mark Wahlberg and Christina Applegate. That was a stupid movie, but again, it was more of a reason to escape, to get out in the world with folks.

The day I saw The Big Hit, I saw that with two friends. They were a couple I used to go to a lot of movies with, to a degree that they actually coined a phrase based around some of the movies that we would see, which was "Marcel movies.” So a movie would come out and they'd go, "That's a Marcel movie. We're gonna go see that one with him."

The Big Hit was actually a rough day for me. ... I had that day just come from Pittsburgh ComiCon. I remember it very clearly because it was a Sunday and the weather was terrible. So I had been to the ComiCon and I was feeling kind of low because I wasn't getting where I wanted to get with my comics professionally. It just felt like I was hitting roadblock after roadblock and I was talking to a guy at the ComiCon and I'd been watching him during the day and he seemed by all appearances to be very successful. … All sorts of people were following him around, especially, like, all these pretty girls everywhere he went. Let me tell you, for a comics creator to have pretty girls following them all around. ...

So at one point, I approached him and asked him, like, “Hey, man, I'm trying to do stuff,” and I was looking for a good word, you know, a word of encouragement. That guy stopped me cold. He cut me off. He actually just went, “Hey, before you go any further, I just want to tell you something. I don't care.” He was brutal. Even in retrospect, I don't think it was like a tough-love sort of thing. He was just brutal. He was like, “People come up to me all the time they want to know this, they want to know that. If you want to make comics, just find a way to make them, that's how I did it. That's how it's gonna be.” … He was a dick.

I was in my early 20s at the time, I couldn't have been more than 25. I walked out of there, I was totally floored and dejected. It was raining like nobody's business and I was going to the bus stop. It's almost like a movie 'cause my umbrella blew inside out and broke. So I had to throw it away. I get on the bus sopping wet. I get off the bus near [the couple’s] apartment. So they give me a ride, sopping wet. I had asked for a towel. I didn't even want to talk about why I was down. I don't think they even noticed because I was running late. So we go to this movie, and we're watching The Big Hit. And it was a dumb, silly movie. And that's probably the best thing because, you know, my mind was just spinning with this setback.

Nils Ekman: I remember at the One Hour Photo screening, we had to convince the cashier that we were old enough to be let into a rated-R movie. During Big Fish, my German friend Tillman and I sobbed at the end.

Lots of great memories from that place. Another was a packed theater to see The Life Aquatic with my two friends from [high school] and my parents three rows back monitoring the situation. Very fun night.

Marie Mashyna: One time they bussed all us [Chatham University] girls there to watch Twilight: New Moon and it was the greatest night of my life.

Marcel Walker: A trip to the Squirrel Hill Theater was always an escape from whatever the heck else I had going on. I mean, that's what movies are anyway but, you know, I didn't drive. So for me, it was essential for me to get to theaters ideally that I didn't have to drive to get to. So even when I moved away, the farthest I ever traveled from to get there was just Penn Hills. But I was living in Oakland when I went two times with the young lady I was talking about.

So 1990 rolls around. Dick Tracy was going to be released. ... I, being the comics person I am, I'm super looking forward to this movie. So the promotion was [Squirrel Hill Theater was] going to have an early screening. That's the first movie where I remember they were doing early screenings, like a midnight showing. ... So this was this unique thing. And the way that they did it, and there were, I guess, other theaters that did it, too, but they participated in this particular promotion. Your ticket was a T-shirt. So you purchase this T-shirt, which on the front of it was like a poster with a black T-shirt. And in the bright primary colors of Dick Tracy was the image of Dick Tracy. But the border was a movie ticket. And so you would get this T-shirt, you would go to the box office to pay for it and they would stamp it with the date and time of the show. So you could wear your T-shirt, that was your ticket to the midnight pre-screening of Dick Tracy. … I still own that T-shirt, by the way.

My mom has always been, like, way overprotective. And so I'm getting ready to walk out at whatever-it-was o'clock at night to go to this screening of Dick Tracy and she's being her typical self. Just going to a movie. It's right up there. I'll be fine.

I get there and it's full. … It was a packed house. ... And I was really happy to see it. And I thought they did a good job.

So I leave and it's now, it's what? Like two in the morning. I just live a few blocks away. And I'm walking down Murray Avenue. And I'm by myself and I realized at some point, there's a police car. And it's following me. I lived in a sort of a bubble in a sense, like, I was a very upbeat optimistic kid. You know, at this point, I finished art school, my friends had mostly moved away, and I was on my own in a respect. Generally speaking, I didn't think overtly about race relations.

But admittedly, a thought formed that I've never fully shaken since then, which was, “Oh my God, you're kidding me. You're following me? I'm wearing a fucking bright dayglow Dick Tracy shirt. I just came from a movie about the ultimate cop, wearing a shirt with his image on it, and you're trailing me? Really?”

So anyway, nothing happened beyond that. Like, I wasn't stopped, and eventually, I think they might have just kept going. And I got home. I don't think I ever mentioned that last part to my mom. She may not have let me out of the house again. I've talked to a few people about that over the years.

Is that something that the Squirrel Hill Theater caused? No. But, like, all these other stories, I associate them with that place because it happened as a result of me being there. You know, when I think of Squirrel Hill Theater, I think of Dick Tracy. And I think of that experience. The whole night, like, everything about it was great. But leaving, that happened. And that never left me. And in many respects, that shattered a lot of my obliviousness about things, which isn't necessarily a bad thing because you know, being aware of how you're perceived in the world can help keep you alive.

I don't hold the Squirrel Hill Theater responsible. I don't hold Dick Tracy responsible. I just hold our society and things that we deal with responsible.

Working for the Weekend

Ed Elinoff: I started there in 1975. I worked for a couple of years before, you know, I went off to college. But it was just the way the crowd was, in the way when the movie ended, my father was always standing in the lobby, talking to everybody. Everyone who would come in the door, my father seemed to know, and he would be talking to them about the movie. How was the movie? How did you like it? People just would flock to my father and he was just the perfect person for that setting.

But, yeah, it's a situation where it was the best of the best for so many years. What I like about working there is the fact that you're part of the crowd control. I mean, I remember those days where people would be lined up down Forward Avenue all the way to Poli’s to get into the theater. Sometimes it was really crazy, but it was just a fun place to work, and I always enjoyed getting into all the movies for free. I wish I could have that type of thing now.

Lynn Snyderman: I have memories of walking into the Squirrel Hill Theater, and, of course, you know, when he would see family like me, he would let me in for free, which was really a nice perk. But I just remember he would always be dressed up as the manager. And he would always be there to greet every customer that walked in. And yeah, he was just lovely. I have this memory of him taking the velvet rope, you know, that would keep people from going into the theater too soon, and taking that velvet rope and opening the gate so that people could go in for the next movie.

Rachel Belloma, former Squirrel Hill Theater employee, 2004-2008: I started working at the theater when I was 17. I worked there all through college until I was 20 or 21. I quit to work full-time in restaurants after graduation because I was money-hungry and ready for adult wages.

Started in high school as a general employee. We all worked concessions, door, usher, or box office shifts. I ended up working as a projectionist and shift manager in college. I wanted to work there because I had friends who did and told me it was an extremely chill place to work and you got to see free movies, which is basically a high school dream come true.

Emily Fear, former Squirrel Hill Theater employee, 2006-2007: I was 21 and had a weird resume with little to no retail or food service experience. I had multi-colored hair. I was not particularly hireable, but when I asked about openings at the Forward Avenue theater, I was given an application and called for an interview later that same day. I liked the idea of working at a movie theater and I lived within walking distance, so I jumped at the opportunity.

My interview was short, to the point, and basically amounted to, "Are you not a total fuck-up and willing to work for minimum wage?" At some point, we talked about aliens. I was hired.

Rachel Belloma: The owners were very reluctant to replace equipment, so we had some ancient 35mm projectors and platters running on newer light bulbs. This meant the bulbs were actually a higher wattage than the projector was able to handle so films caught on fire all the time. I also had to wrap my fingers in medical tape before a shift because the internal workings on the machine got so hot.

Emily Fear: First off, movies broke down all the time because we had film projectors, not digital. Sounds nice and warm and cinephilic, but they broke consistently and would occasionally burn up film. So you'd be sitting in the theater and suddenly, the movie would just burn away. My first introduction to the theater was as a customer seeing Big Fish and it happened that night! The next week, we came back to see the movie again and at that point, there was a little jump in the movie from the patch on the film and everyone let out a little gasp.

We showed films for all ages, so we'd have serious arthouse fare playing next to whatever big animated movie had just come out. We had people fooling around in the theaters, most notably a young couple who decided to get hot and heavy during a screening of Happy Feet, among a theater full of children and their parents. They were caught and thrown out.

Rachel Belloma: So many handjobs — so many. We used to give each other the heads up that people were making out and we’d each take turns going in with the little usher broom to knock around the seats to break it up.

There were two employees whom I’m 90% sure were preparing to apply to the police academy who would use the gum remover solvent to light patterns on fire in the carpet and would sometimes go into the back of the largest theater to throw M&Ms at patron’s heads.

One of the managers kept a loaded gun in a filing cabinet upstairs and we definitely treated it like the dead body in Stand By Me.

Emily Fear: Day-to-day could be fairly mundane. Most of us were floor staff, so you'd either work the ticket booth, the concessions counter, or usher. Friday and Saturday nights, there was typically someone assigned to announce the movies that were open for seating.

The movies would all usually go in around the same times, meaning we'd be left with an hour, even almost two to just ... be there. One of the older people who worked there would chain smoke outside the theater or in the back, where we stored popcorn and soda syrups. If you were concessions, you'd refill the popper, clean up, etc. Ushers would check the bathrooms. Empty trash when needed. But it was a lot of sitting around. We'd order pizza from the place next door or cross the street for coffee from the BP, which was free for the employees. I drank a lot of gas station coffee.

Rachel Belloma: I have lovely memories of getting a high score on the Lord of the Rings pinball machine [in the lobby] or finishing 100 Years of Solitude in the back office on my break, surrounded by bags of popcorn and tearing up at the final paragraph. I also had a manager there who truly acted as a surrogate dad to us — bringing stuffed shells in for holiday parties, giving me advice on car repairs, backing us up if a patron tried to start fights with any of us. That was the most familial any workplace has ever been for me.

Emily Fear: Forward Avenue, in that time, was still kinda rundown, too. There was us, the pizza place that we had a weird rivalry with, the pub that was a frequent post-work gathering spot, and a Russian restaurant that we were all convinced was a front. But it's still Squirrel Hill, so we'd have families come in and more well-to-do, older wealthy folks. WPXI's David Johnson and his family were frequent visitors.

Oh, and [former WTAE anchorwoman Sally Wiggin]. Sally Wiggin came in one night completely toasted and in a salmon pink pantsuit. She got concessions and left her purse at the counter, which I gave to her when she came back to retrieve it. I love Sally Wiggin.

Rachel Belloma: A kid from Allderdice High School hit on my coworker in the truly most incredible way: he bought a popcorn, came back out halfway through his movie to complain to her that there was a napkin in his popcorn. The napkin had his name and phone number on it. It was remarkably smooth.

Emily Fear: It was a very easy job. You'd have nights where you worked like hell and days where you barely worked. Pay was terrible. Paychecks would bounce occasionally. You had to deal with irate customers because of films breaking.

But it was the kind of job you could do in almost any state. Healthy, hungover, tired, amped up on caffeine. One time I had to pull a double shift after staying up all night on an acid trip. I was coming down around the time I started getting the concessions area ready for opening. It was surreal and, yet, it didn't matter. Nobody asked questions and the job was simple enough to manage, no matter how compromised you might be.

The hardest part of the job was working in a staff that contained so many teenagers because they kinda brought out the teenage dynamic in everyone. You couldn't help it. You'd be around 16-year-olds and suddenly, you're acting like one and you don't even understand why.

There was a silent hierarchy that ruled over the floor staff. There were particular people you didn't want to cross. It was petty and dumb.

Rachel Belloma: I mean, it was chaos. But chaos, when you’re a teenage employee, is kind of magical.

The End Credits

Steven Haines, vice president of Jump Cut Theater and Film Kitchen co-organizer: My first apartment was right behind the theater, on Maeburn Road. … I also happened to be unemployed at the time and so would often spend what little money I had catching matinees there.

click to enlarge Squirrel Hill Theater entrance after it closed - PHOTO: STEVEN HAINES
Photo: Steven Haines
Squirrel Hill Theater entrance after it closed
One day they were open, and then I tried to go the next afternoon to see The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and was surprised to find the closed sign on the door, citing technical problems. I remember thinking back then that the theater must have been on shaky ground (and especially with the costly transition to digital happening right at that time), so I had an inkling that they might not open their doors again. Then I think the closing was officially announced within the next few days.

Favorite movie I saw at the Squirrel Hill Theater: Be Kind Rewind.

Marcel Walker: I think about how I had been in the Squirrel Hill Theater for moments of joy, you know, through successive dates with my art school crush. I've been there just to kind of chill on a nice warm summer day. I was there at one of my lower moments. So you know, there's all these emotions I think of in that space even now, when I walked past there. Because of these trips that we took there.

When the theater folded, like everybody else, you got all these memories wrapped up in that place. And I want to preserve that, even the bad, as a record of a time and a place and what the place meant. And you know, the experiences that I had.

You know what, the only thing that would make me happier than seeing the Squirrel Hill Theater brought back as a movie theater, as a neighborhood theater, is seeing another movie theater moved back into East Liberty, like a Black-owned movie theater. If I hit the lottery tomorrow, I guarantee you I would do that. Because we need that desperately.

Emily Fear: I was really sad to see the theater close, but it didn't really sink in until it was torn down. That whole block of Forward Avenue was a little time capsule of a Squirrel Hill that doesn't exist anymore. The Squirrel Hill Theater was part of that. Its teal and purple decor and ugly, ugly carpet and pinball machines and cash-only policy. It couldn't really exist the way it did then now, you know? It would have had to have a bougie facelift like The Manor and offer local beer and cocktails and artisanal candy. That theater exists in a very specific time and place.

Rachel Belloma: Small theaters are wonderful. You’ll never go to a large theater chain and have Lynda, the box office queen, advise you on which movie to see based on your taste for biopics or catch you up on the plot if you missed the first ten minutes. I’m just sad to see this town continue to lose our small, independent theaters.

Emily Fear: One thing I loved was how things could spread by word of mouth in that community. It wasn't like working at The Waterfront or a faceless giant theater. We'd have films that would suddenly become big hits at our theater because one family saw it and told all their friends to see it and then, boom, it's selling out every show.

Ed Elinoff: When I saw that the Squirrel Hill Theater, you know, it's going to be torn down, even though it's been sitting dormant for so many years, it still, you know, resonates sadness because we know what it was, and what it is now, and how it's obsolete.

Everything changes in life and changes with the times. But the Squirrel Hill was there for so many years, and it was the place to go. … I mean, obviously, the Squirrel Hill had other issues. It was hard to find a place to park, and it's not as simple as just driving into a parking lot and going to the movie theater. But it was in an area where some of these Squirrel Hill residents, they could just walk there. It wasn't really an issue.

I don't want to think that the past is better than the present. I mean, maybe in certain ways it is but you know, as I get older, and life seems to move quicker and quicker, sometimes you just sort of gravitate to a simpler time where you understood it better than you do now. But Squirrel Hill Theater was my father. My father was Squirrel Hill Theater. And I was glad that, for a short period of time, I got to savor that feeling of how great it was. And, you know, it was a major part of the fabric of Squirrel Hill.

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