Davis Theatre

522 Smithfield Street,
Pittsburgh, PA 15222

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Additional Info

Operated by: Keith-Albee

Architects: Henry Hornbostel

Firms: H.E. Kennedy & Co.

Styles: Neo-Classical

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Davis Theatre interior-Pittsburgh, PA

The Davis Theatre was opened February 15, 1915 as a live theatre presenting the Davis Players in the comedy play “Baby Mine”. It had three entrances on: Smithfield Street, 6th Avenue and Oliver Avenue. It was equipped to screen films from its opening and the first film presentation was in June 1915 “The Eternal City”. It was equipped with an organ (make unknown). It had a narrow Neo-Classical style façade extending back to a large auditorium in back.

In the 1920’s it became a vaudeville house. Taken over by Stanley-Warner Theatres it became a silent movie theatre, and then talkie equipment was installed, but the acoustics were not favourable. It went back to Vaudeville with movies as part of the program. Warner Bros. moved out in in 1934 and it return to use as a playhouse in 1935. Movies briefly returned and it was closed on April 18, 1936 with George Brent in “Snowed Under” & Chester Morris in “Woman Trap”. It was demolished in late-1938. The area has been replaced by modern construction.

Contributed by David A. Litterer

Recent comments (view all 10 comments)

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on December 13, 2010 at 6:58 am

The Davis Theatre was built by, and named for, Charles Lindley Davis, an actor, playwright, and impresario who also built and operated the Alvin Theatre in Pittsburgh.

A 1922 book, History of Pittsburgh and environs, has this to say about Davis’s theater operations:

“The Harry Davis Stock Company, another Pittsburgh enterprise, controls the Alvin Theatre, presenting first class road companies, and under this management is also the Davis Theatre, built and opened in 1915, a member of the Keith’s circuit, where the highest class refined vaudeville entertainments are given. Under this management are also the Grand Opera House and the Lyric Theatre.”
Davis also controlled the Alvin Theatre in New York City.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on December 13, 2010 at 7:15 am

I have to correct my previous comment. The Davis Theatre was built in 1915, six years after Charles Davis died. I’ve been unable to determine the exact relationship between Charles Davis and Harry Davis, but I know that after C.L. Davis' death, Harry Davis took control of his theatrical enterprises.

CSWalczak on December 13, 2010 at 11:58 am

The obituary of C. L. Davis (Charles Lindley; born Alvin Joslin, which where the Alvin name comes from) is available online at the New York times, and according to that he had no living relatives.

It is known Harry Davis was the brother-in-law of John P. Harris; those two co-founded either the first Nickelodeon or certainly one of the first in Pittsburgh in 1905.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on December 13, 2010 at 5:41 pm

That’s what happens when I read a source too quickly and I’m not fully awake yet. I forgot that I’d already noted on the Alvin (Gateway) Theatre page that Charles Davis had sold that house to B.F. Keith’s circuit in 1900 (I’ve been unable to discover what became of his Alvin in New York.)

The Davis Theatre obviously must have been named for Harry Davis. Over the years a number of his theaters, including the Davis, were operated in a pooling deal with the Kieth circuit. It was apparently through the deal with Keith that the Pittsburgh Alvin came under the Harry Davis company’s management.

CSWalczak on December 13, 2010 at 5:57 pm

The current Neil Simon Theatre in New York was known as the Alvin from its opening in 1927 until it was renamed for the playwright in 1983. However, according to the theater’s information at the IBDB, this Alvin was named for Alex A. Aarons and Vinton Freedley. I am wondering if thee was an earlier Alvin in New York.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on December 14, 2010 at 5:44 am

At Google Books a few days ago I came across a reference to Davis having an Alvin Theatre in New York in the late 19th century, but now I can’t find it. I’m wondering if it was another of those things I read too quickly and misunderstood. The earlier Alvin in New York might be a figment.

I’ve come across another interesting book, published in 1909, which has a few brief paragraphs about both Davises and B.F. Keith. The passage about Charles Davis is quite derogatory about his play, calling it “…perhaps the poorest vehicle in the way of a play that was ever inflicted on an audience.” A later paragraph makes reference to a conflict between Harry Davis and Keith in which Keith apparently attempted to take over Davis’s operations, but no details are given. It sounds like an interesting story, but I’ve been unable to find any source that tells it all.

Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois
Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois on December 26, 2010 at 5:19 pm

Open 1915-~1945? Can anyone verify the exact dates?

More info and photos are always welcome.

James Kastner
James Kastner on November 12, 2014 at 7:20 pm

The Davis Theatre opened February 15, 1915 with the Famous Davis Players in “Baby Mine”

rivest266 on February 17, 2021 at 4:14 pm

Grand opening ad posted. Closed in 1936.

dallasmovietheaters on July 9, 2022 at 5:19 pm

The opening sentence of this entry reads, “not much is known about this theatre.” But I’m not sure what ISN’T known about the Davis Theatre. There are shots of it being built in 1914 and numerous accounts from both the trade press and the local newspapers. We know that its initial cost was pegged at $225,000 for the Harry Davis Stock Company and Harry Davis’s Theatre Circuit but approached $920,000 at completion if reports are correct. The building’s final cost, however, also included an arcade of shops and three entries into the theater for reasons of safety and convenience. The original structure was a more simple five-story venue with roof-top garden, open-air theater in addition to the main indoor auditorium. The finished three-story building was a more ambitious, multi-use property which the Pittsburgh Press called, “(T)he handsomest and costliest theater of the varieties in America.” The land it sat upon was comprised of three lots acquired from Colonel Oliver S. Hershman adjoining Smithfield Street, Oliver Avenue, Sixth Avenue, and Cherry Street turned William Penn Place facing the new $5 million William Penn Hotel.

The Davis Theater’s interior was bathed in ivory and gold. Its framework was steel hidden underneath a facing of Bedford stone, terra cotta and light grey brick. Its entrances were from Oliver Avenue and Sixth Avenue (see photos). The architectural style was said to be Adam with the lounge and balcony owing its look to the period of Louis XVI. It sported a copper marquee. Its lobby was 35 feet high resplendent in marble. Fred Zweifel was its opening manager.Its opening scenery was created at the nearby Alvin Theatre. Its capacity was 2,500 at opening. Its main drop curtain was created by Arthur Lowell (see photos). The asbestos curtain was created by George A. Little. Portraits included Marie Antionette, Madame de Pompadour, Madame du Barry, and Julie Adélaïde Récamier. The four seasons were reflected on the auditorium’s ceiling. A series of dancers were found in a frieze above the proscenium (see photos).

Harry Davis opened the venue on February 15, 1915 with his Davis Players in “Baby Mine” (see opening ad in photos). Gill Friar was in charge of the orchestra. Dedication speeches were by Eleanor Fitzgibbon of the Drama League of America, Mayor Joseph G. Armstrong, and Samuel Black McCormick, Chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh. Big attendance was reported for the opening which launched with great floral displays throughout its lobby and auditorium. And because Davis and his partner and brother-in-law, John P. Harris, had famously opened the first movie theaters some ten years earlier in Pittsburgh, the Davis Theatre was also equipped with movie projection at launch.

It was fortuitous that the Davis had installed film projection because plays did not appear to be the road to profitability for Harry Davis’s new house. The trade press reported the first films in the Davis Theatre started in May of 1915 under a new policy and the Davis’s first major film screening in June of 1915 with an exclusive of “The Eternal City.” And it’s possible that the Davis' future might have been that of a movie house until just two months later when the Keith Vaudeville jettisoned its long-standing agreement with the Grand Opera House in favor of the Davis. The venue was soon under the Davis and Rowland operational banner.

The Davis stayed with vaudeville, primarily, and spotted in motion pictures as plays were completely gone in the 1920’s era Davis Theatre. It became the town’s leading vaudeville house in the 1920s. A child labor charge in 1921 was brought when youngsters Jane and Katherine Lee graced the Davis' stage. The victorious defense by the Davis turned out to be a significant precedent for child actors seeking work in theatrical or other art forms. In 1925, the Davis added a modern air conditioning plant (see photos) to improve comfortability. When Harry Davis suffered a stroke in 1927, his Davis Theatre began to slide after its final profitable year of 1927. At that time, the theater was said to have made some $262,000 in profit. But with the new Penn Theatre launching in September of 1927 followed by the Stanley Theatre which opened five months later in 1928 - both of which made the Davis seem out of step. Further, vaudeville revenues began to slide as talking pictures and variety shows on radio chiseled away audiences.

The aging Davis Theatre venue and the other Davis' locations were combined under the short-lived Stanley-Davis-Clark Theatres Circuit under the Stanley-Davis-Clark-and-Rowland banner (a mouthful) which - in less than two years - was operated by Warner Bros. Circuit as Stanley-Warner and then, simply, Warner Theatres. Warner’s entry into Pittsburgh’s film exhibition space allowed which more emphasis on movie exhibition and transitioning to Warner’s Vitaphone for silent houses. With new movie palaces in the city and without founder Harry Davis to champion it, the Davis Theatre’s halcyon period(s) were clearly behind it under Warner.

The venue was experimented with as a talking movie house but was not considered an ideal sound movie auditorium. It was downgraded being leased out for lectures, promotional sales pitches, and other events at the onset of the Depression and closed in 1930 as Warner refreshed it with a new color palette. The Davis was reopened in 1931 as a vaudeville house with sound films. Vaudeville would be excised in favor of the Davis becoming a double-feature, second-run grind house until, apparently, being dropped by Warner at the end of its 20-year leasing cycle in 1934.

Late in 1934, it returned to full-time live plays and, under manager Ed Siegal in 1935, returned in its final stage of operation with films combining radio station tie-ins. It appears to have closed on April 18, 1936 with a double-feature of George Brent in “Snowed Under” and Chester Morris in “Woman Trap.” The Davis property was sold by Hershman Estate to Pittsburgh interests later in that year and left vacant by all reports for two years. That group would finally have the venue razed in 1938. A final attempt to save the Davis and turn it into a nightclub, sadly, were nixed that spring.

A November 1938 ad listed what one could purchase from the Davis and that included its $15,000 organ, French doors, maple flooring, steel, brass railings, chandeliers and more from R.J. Omslaer Wrecking Co. (see photos) The Davis auditorium and lobby space was finally cleared in 1939 and would be replaced at the time with a parking structure with the arcade shops and two Davis entries remaining until 1954. All of the structures would then be razed for the visionary Mellon Square project that placed parking below the surface with a Modernist park above the parking structure. It was a plan that was copied in major cities in the U.S.

So basically, the planning stages of the Davis Theatre’s pre-launch from 1914 and 1915 are very well documented. One could look up every single booking at the theatre. Vaudeville performers included Fanny Brice, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen, Marie Dressler, and Edward Everett Horton. Every owner of the theatre is known. And even the contractor for its demolition (other than the adjoining arcade) and contents offered for sale are known. The 1955 demolition of the remaining elements of the 1915 structure - likely reaching end of a second 20-year leasing arrangement, are pretty well documented, as well. And Mellon Square now occupies its spot. So, yes, other than all of that, “nothing is known about this theater.”

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