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Row House Cinema finds synergy between the old and new

By Vincent Smith / Senior Staff Writer

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Suppose you weren’t alive — or were just too young — to see “Citizen Kane,” “Pulp Fiction” and “Mad Max” during their original theatrical run. Some of these larger-than-life classics demand to be viewed on the big screen, and Lawrenceville’s Row House Cinema seeks to give moviegoers a chance to relive some of their favorites in a theatrical setting.

For the theater’s opening night, set for this Saturday, June 21, the classic “Pulp Fiction” will be shown on the big screen. In the future, customers can expect a repertory lineup of films that stick to themes chosen by the staff and the public. Not only are movie theaters making a comeback, but the classics are now finding a new home at the Row House Cinema.

Brian Mendelssohn, the proprietor of the Row House Cinema in Lawrenceville, paints a picture of the glory days of film and its recent revitalization. He sees his new theater as another part of that growing trend.

For Mendelssohn, movie theaters were a staple of urban environments in a time not so long ago. But when urbanites moved en masse to the suburbs after World War II, they took with them the great movie houses.

“Cities have been losing their walkability and their urban-ness in the last 40 or 50 years,” said Mendelssohn. “Lawrenceville alone used to have three movie theaters and since 1965 has not had one.”

But Mendelssohn believes that urban living is again becoming popular, and in turn, the local movie theater is due for a comeback.

“I think times are changing,” he said. “People want to live in cities again. They aren’t as interested in the mall and in the megaplex.”

Consider the Row House, a new single-screening theater right on Butler Street, a product of the changing times and a reawakening for local theaters. 

“People want something a little more personal and local,” Mendelssohn said.

A visitor to the Row House will find an elegant hallway leading to the concession area, which is complete with five craft beers on tap and a vintage pinball machine. 

When asked what makes the Row House unique, general manager Geoff Sanderson said, “It’s the environment itself — the theater itself, everything about it. We are giving people another option.”

The Row House, combining new age simplicity with “1920s Hollywood glam,” as Mendelssohn put it, is much different from a normal theater. The goal, Mendelssohn said, was to “transfer the person into another world.”

Pittsburgh has a few smaller-sized theaters spread throughout the city that show independent films as well as a few hard to find new releases. The Row House has a different approach to the small theater set-up. 

“The other [local theatres] will play older films from time to time but that’s not their main purpose or their main cause,” Sanderson said. “Our whole thing is all older films.”

Mendelssohn considers Row House to be a curation just as much as it is a theater.

There is most certainly an openness to show a wide variety of films and material at the Row House. Last weekend, the HUMP! Erotic Film Festival was in town — a compilation of homemade pornographic shorts made by ordinary people to win cash prizes. 

Originally scheduled to be at the Hollywood Theater in Dormont, the festival had to find a new venue last minute due to “conservative concerns” from the community in Dormont, according to Tracey Cataldo, who ran the HUMP! tour. Row House accepted the festival with open arms. 

“It’s nice to have a theater that is so cool and laid back in this type of neighborhood — it is exactly what we wanted,” Cataldo said.

Cataldo praised not only Row House’s hospitality, but also talked about the theater’s overall quality. “It sounds amazing,” she said. “It’s great – it has a very intimate feel.”

Along with its intimacy, Mendelssohn also takes pride in the theater’s deceptively savvy technology. 

“Our movie theater – although it looks like the 1920s – is, from a technological perspective, the latest and greatest in digital cinema,” he said.

That is the truly alluring aspect of the Row House: it’s a movie theater that pays homage to some of cinema’s greatest accomplishments while utilizing the best technology available. Although Mendelssohn described the theater as a throwback to America’s cinematic roots, the Row House still aims to be a sleek and modern take on the local theater. 

If you come and see a movie at the Row House, make sure to take advantage of the perks not available at the multiplexes: real butter for your popcorn, craft beers that you can bring into the theater and vegan pastries.

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Row House Cinema finds synergy between the old and new