Summer Nights on the Silver Screen

Oakmont's classic Oaks Theater is Pittsburgh's finest place to catch a movie, and there's no time like this summer during the annual "Moonlit Matinee" series.



Photo by Kaitlyn Johnston

Summer could prove an expensive season at the movie theater. Several top cinema chains just implemented a price increase, with normal tickets now hovering around the $10 mark. Plus, more and more blockbusters and family-friendly options are offered in 3-D, a development that carries even more hefty admission fees: A ticket to one of this year’s extra-dimensional tent-pole releases could cost a terrifying 20 bucks.

Fortunately, there are alternatives. There’s at least one big one in Pittsburgh, in fact, that has better prices for better films at a better theater. In short, exactly what going to the movies should be.

The Oaks Theater, a historic single-screen gem in the heart of downtown Oakmont, just kicked off its eighth annual “Moonlit Matinee” series. Since 2003, the theater has presented cult favorites, forgotten classics and blockbusters of the past to late-night crowds during the series.

And while movie theaters can have somewhat of a short lifespan—many multiplexes blink in and out of existence every few decades as smaller houses struggle to compete with the big boys—The Oaks is Pittsburgh’s shining exception to this rule. The theater has been in more or less uninterrupted operation since its gala opening on Nov. 18, 1938, when it appropriately featured the Broadway comedy Letter of Introduction.

Today, the theater bears several of the signature features that have been in place since that night, including the distinctive oak leaves hanging on the walls and the art-deco shape of the room around the screen. The marquee outside is an original, as well, although it’s been repaired several times as the result of passing trucks clipping off its edges. The original theater seats were removed to create more space, which led up to an extensive renovation in 2002 when the entryway and lobby were overhauled after Meg Burkardt, Marc Serrao and Cynthia Yaunt became co-owners.

The Oaks’ facelift certainly impressed Randy Collins, who lived in San Francisco at the time but stopped by the theater during a visit to Pittsburgh in 2003. In 2008—five years after that visit—Collins became the theater’s manager, and this summer marks the third “Moonlit Matinee” series he’s presented. Collins says he loves the community atmosphere created by the series.

“The biggest movie last year was Jaws, and I know it was a community event,” Collins says. “It was like, ‘Everyone’s going to see Jaws at the Oaks this weekend!’ The goal with the repertory stuff is to attract people from the city and elsewhere, [but] there is this huge draw locally.”

This summer’s series again features a few classics the whole neighborhood could turn up for. The weekend of July 4 will feature Richard Donner’s near-perfect rendering of Superman, still fresh more than 30 years later, thanks to its perfect trio of actors on top: Christopher Reeve as the hero, Marlon Brando as Jor-El and Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor. One icon gives way to another the following weekend when Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the campiest of Harrison Ford’s adventures, takes the screen. If you’ve only watched Raiders of the Lost Ark recently, don’t miss Temple; it may be the most fun of any movie in the series. (And it’ll wash the terrible taste of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull out of your mouth.)

While the “Moonlit Matinee” series was originally a mostly adults-only affair, Collins says that he’s happy to present films like Superman and Indiana Jones so that families can attend together. “By keeping a lot of them family-friendly, we keep Oakmont attached. Half of the films this year are [rated] PG. They’re cult movies, but they have a broad appeal.”

Of course, midnight movies have long been the realm of horror, and this summer will be no exception. Monster-movie aficionados will be pleased to find the 1955 drive-in thriller It Came from Beneath the Sea is on the schedule for June 4-5. George Romero’s anthology-horror flick Creepshow is on tap for the last weekend in June. If you haven’t seen that schlocky creeper written by Stephen King, there’s plenty of local interest: Creepshow was filmed in Pittsburgh and features a number of prominent locals besides Romero, including Pittsburgh natives Tom Atkins and Fritz Weaver.

Rounding out the series’ something-for-everyone variety, other selections for the summer include the following: John Carpenter’s ‘80s action-comedy Big Trouble in Little China (June 18-19); Female Trouble, John Waters’ shocking and underappreciated follow-up to Pink Flamingos (July 16-17); the absolutely undeniable Ghostbusters II (July 23-24); Robocop, starring Peter Weller as the half-man, half-machine title character (Aug. 6-7); and Billy Wilder’s immortal late-noir masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard (Aug. 13-14).

“The key is to try to do something for everyone,” Collins says of the selections. “And it is about seeing these movies that you love on film in a theater with a crowd.”

A full schedule is available at theoakstheater.com and is subject to change. (The Oaks Theater, 310 Allegheny River Blvd., Oakmont. May 21-Aug. 21: Fridays, 10 p.m.; Saturdays, midnight. $8. Info: 412/828-6311, theoakstheater.com)


MAKE AN EVENING OF IT

If you’re looking for supper before Superman or cocktails before Creepshow, Oakmont is happy to oblige. And if you prefer to keep a drink in hand throughout the evening, fear not: The Oaks is going BYOB for the series.

  • Boulevard Bistro: Located next door to the Oaks and owned by Oaks co-owner Meg Burkardt, the bistro will stay open later on Fridays and Saturdays throughout the summer and offer a scaled-back menu to accommodate the “Moonlit” crowd. (314 Allegheny River Blvd., Oakmont. Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Info: 412/828-7777, oakmontbistro.com)

  • Hoffstot’s Café Monaco: This café—within a stone’s throw of the theater—specializes in Italian fare that won’t leave you broke. (533 Allegheny Ave., Oakmont. Mon.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun., 1-9 p.m. Info: 412/828-8555, hoffstots.com)

  • Carnivores: Go for the laid-back atmosphere, great bar food and vast selection of craft beers and microbrews. (215 Allegheny Ave., Oakmont. Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Info: 412/820-7427, carnivores-oakmont.com)

Can't get enough of the cinema? Check out these great Pittsburgh-based and world-wide film festivals to get your fill of all things FILM...

Independent Film Week: September 19-24, 2010

2010 Pittsburgh Filmworkers Association Film Festival: September 17, 2010

Johnstown Film Festival: June 16-19, 2010

Great Lakes Independent Film Festival: September 22-September 29, 2010

And make sure to be on the look-out for Pittsburgh's annual Three Rivers Film Festival. Dates and times coming soon...

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