A Pittsburgh Film History Primer

The marquee of the Roosevelt Theatre in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, as photographed by Teenie Harris. [1]

The marquee of the Roosevelt Theatre in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, as photographed by Teenie Harris. [1]

Part 1 – An Overview

Pittsburgh and the southwestern Pennsylvania region are rich with notable connections to movies. Of course, any accounting of history is subjective and requires choices about what people, events, places, works, etc. are worth remembering, but a “greatest hits” overview of Pittsburgh film history from the vantage point of the year 2020 might looking something like this: '

Hollywood Roots + Golden Age

Pittsburgh plays a key role in the development of film exhibition as mass entertainment. While it is not the first movie theater (as is sometimes claimed),[2] the city was the site of one of the most famous early movie houses: Nickelodeon, located at 433 Smithfield Street, opened in Downtown Pittsburgh in June of 1905. 

Additionally, numerous major players in early cinema and the classical Hollywood era were born in the region: from pioneering silent filmmaker Lois Weber,[3] to the Warner family (yes, of those Warner Brothers), to one of America’s enduring sweethearts of the screen, actor Jimmy Stewart. The city also has at least two significant ties to golden age Hollywood musicals. Legendary actor, director, and choreographer (among other talents) Gene Kelly -- of such classics as Singin in the Rain (1952) and It’s Always Fair Weather (1955)[4] -- was born and raised in Pittsburgh and even attended undergrad and law school at the University of Pittsburgh 

Lena Horne spent several years of her childhood in Pittsburgh, and she again called the city home in the late 1930s while she rose to fame as an actor and singer. Horne is still remembered for her songs in many 1940s and 50s MGM musicals.[5] There she signed a contract designed to make her “the first black movie star,” but she was consistently relegated to supporting roles wherein she performed specialty numbers that had no relationship to the movie’s narrative, thus could be easily edited out for white audiences.[6]

Industrials and Beyond

Pittsburgh in the 20th century is frequently understood to be a center for industry. The many corporate headquarters and foundations in the city, looking to harness the power of motion pictures to promote products and ideas, were -- and continue to be -- an extensive client-base for non-theatrical film productions. One constant throughout the region’s movie history is that it has generated important examples of industrial, sponsored, commercial, and other ephemeral types of films, going at least as far back to the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company’s Westinghouse Works,[8] a 1904 series of actuality films which capture views of Westinghouse factories and workers in the region. 

   A still from Girls Taking Time Checks, part of the Westinghouse Works series. Women are lined up in an industrial setting.   

A still from Girls Taking Time Checks, part of the Westinghouse Works series

The Real Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

Pittsburghers do not have to travel to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, because the neighborhood came to them! Fred Rogers was born in nearby Latrobe, PA and joined America’s first community-sponsored TV station WQED at its inception in 1953. Together with Josie Carey, Rogers developed the show The Children’s Corner, which introduced many of the characters like Daniel S. Tiger, King Friday XIII, and X the Owl that rose to international fame with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968-2001.)[9]

Josie Carey (left) Fred Rogers (second from left) greet visitors to WQED [10]. They are both seated around a table with another individual.

Josie Carey (left) Fred Rogers (second from left) greet visitors to WQED [10]

Horror Capitol

George A. Romero is one of the city’s most celebrated claims to film fame. Romero attended school at Carnegie Technical Institute (now CMU) and remained a proud Pittsburgher for most of the rest of his life. He co-wrote and directed Night of the Living Dead (1968), which is a landmark film for several reasons. Some of Night’s continued claims to fame include: marking the start of the modern zombie mythology, being one of the first instances of a Black hero (Pitt grad Duane Jonesin the horror genre, and providing ever-relevant commentary on American culture. The film’s scathing critique tackles racism, cold war fears, patriarchy, and more. Plus, it’s just a great film that makes effective use of location and sparse resources (elevating individual props to the archetypal) to tell a terrifying story. Night has proven to be an enduring classic that has spawned numerous sequels, spinoffs, remakes, and homages. In the popular imagination, Pittsburgh continues to be ground-zero for the zombie outbreak. In recent years, Pitt and the George A. Romero Foundation[11] have sought to harness and build-upon this history by establishing the George A. Romero Archival Collection,[12] an international resource for the study of horror and science fiction. 

   Night of the Living Dead world premiere on October 1, 1968 at the Fulton Theater (currently Byham Theater) in Downtown Pittsburgh [13]

Night of the Living Dead world premiere on October 1, 1968 at the Fulton Theater (currently Byham Theater) in Downtown Pittsburgh [13]

Avant-Garde Hotbed

Andy Warhol [14] was born in the city’s Oakland neighborhood in 1928 and is probably the most internationally popular name closely associated with the arts in Pittsburgh. While his famous works -- including his prolific output of experimental films -- were completed after his move to New York City, Warhol spent many of his formative years here. His legacy is remembered in the city in many ways today, foremost among them being the Andy Warhol Museum, which contains the largest collection of his artworks in the world. 

In the 1970s, Pittsburgh became a major destination in the avant-garde film world. While the success of such film culture was made possible with the help of innumerable people, it is in many ways indebted to the work of Sally Dixon.[15] She started the Film Section at the Carnegie Museum of Art in 1970 and in a mere five years made Pittsburgh a cutting-edge destination by fostering an ecosystem for makers and viewers of avant-garde cinema.  

    Storm de Hirsch (right and holding a camera) is one of the many nationally recognized filmmakers Dixon (left) brought to the city [16]. Both women are seated.

Storm de Hirsch (right) is one of the many nationally recognized filmmakers Dixon (left) brought to the city [16]

Additionally, Pittsburgh has had strong ties to microcinema culture and screenings in non-traditional spaces of experimental, artist-made, and other types of films commonly ignored by histories that focus on feature length, theatrical movies. In the 1960s, The Crumbling Wall Coffeehouse in Oakland was the site for such film programs. These events are said to have provided the impetus for Dixon and others to organize an experimental film culture in Pittsburgh.[17] Orgone Cinema[18] was one of the most well-known and creative outfits of the microcinema boom in the 90s. Co-founder Greg Pierce maintains the collection of films and still curates occasional events, now under the name Orgone Archive. Jefferson Presents[19] continued the Orgone tradition with monthly screenings throughout the 2000s. Today, Pittsburgh is also home to Channel Silver Eye,[20] Blockbuster Video Microcinema,[21] Sync’d,[22] this writer’s own Flea Market Films,[23] and others, each of which serves audiences their own unique programming flavor.

Continuing the Story

In the 21st century, Pittsburgh maintains an active media culture with a constant stream of major movie and TV productions filming here, taking advantage of the varied landscapes and architectural settings for location shooting, amenities such as 31st Street Studios sound stage, a talented pool of local crew workers, and the Pennsylvania Film Tax Credit. 

Motion picture exhibition in Pittsburgh currently reflects the city’s complex history by offering disparate film festivals to suit nearly every taste. To name just a few: Reel Q[24] has brought works with an LGBTQ+ focus to audiences for nearly 40 years. The Three Rivers Film Festival and Carnegie Mellon International Film Festival[25] offer the most exciting arrays of independent and foreign film offerings in the region. The ongoing Sembène Film & Arts Festival [26] (in homage to Ousmane Sembène) semi-regularly presents events designed to engage with “issues facing the modern African Diaspora.” Film Pittsburgh [27] brings festivals focused on Jewish culture (JFilm), contemporary short films (Pittsburgh Short Film Festival), and individuals with disabilities (ReelAbilities.) The Black Bottom Film Festival [28] focuses on cinema related to the experiences of African-American and Black individuals and communities. Finally, Pittsburgh’s newest festival, Screenshot: Asia, recently launched with various special presentations of Asian cinema over the last year. Screenshot will host their debut festival in September 2021.

For Part 2 - A Closer Look, please click on FILM IN PGH A Closer Look.


[2] Aronson, Michael. Nickelodeon City. 




[6] Pullen, Kirsten. “Light Egyptian: Lena Horne and the Representation of Black Femininity.” Like a Natural Woman: Spectacular Female Performance in Classical Hollywood.























Photography Credits

The marquee of the Roosevelt Theatre in Pittsburgh’s Hill District
 as photographed by Teenie Harris.