TheaTour!: The Byham Theatre

I’ve visited enough theaters over the course of this tour to notice a common historical narrative. (In case you’re just joining us, I’m on the road with the kid’s musical If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.) For virtually every vintage house we’ve played, the story has gone something like this:

  1. The theatre is built as an early 20th century Vaudeville house.
  2. With the post-Depression decline of Vaudeville and the rise of film, the theater starts showing movies, and eventually (for some) X-rated movies.
  3. As it enters the 1970’s, the theater starts to decay.
  4. By the mid to late 80’s, it’s in the crosshairs of the wrecking ball.
  5. BUT! A local arts group or wealthy philanthropist steps in, saves the space, and kick starts an extensive renovation.
  6. Live acts return! Woohoo!

With minor variations, this is the story of Altoona, PA’s Mishler Theatre, Frederick, MA’s Weinberg Center, Petersburg WV’s Smoot Theatre, and surely countless other houses across the country. It’s also the story of Pittsburgh PA’s Byham Theatre, the latest stop on my tour. Built in 1904, the Byham is like many a great Vaudeville house: It’s neo-Classical, swarming with cherubs, and lathered in luxurious red velvet.

But as steps number one through five (above) reveal, a more complicated (and interesting) history is just beneath the surface. For one, somewhere in the Byham’s decaying period, the theater’s boxes were removed from either side of the stage. In the photo below, note the wide, empty stretches next to the proscenium—that’s where those boxes used to perch.

Backstage, pairs of archways hint at this history. Now used for storage, they were originally used as the entryways to the seats of the rich and notable.

What’s more, a haunting staircase stage right leads to the crumbling, vacant shells hidden from the audience by that plaster. (Those spaces are stacked on top of the leftover archways.)

But not all the history has been covered up. A nice fresco decorates the swath of ceiling just above the proscenium. If the nymphs seem a little manly, that’s because female models were unavailable thanks to the Victorianism of the day. (Another possibly apocryphal story goes that the nymphs were originally painted as men, but thinking them too fey, patrons demanded a sex change.)

Beyond the house is a lovely lobby. One of the first things you notice is that many of the ornate lighting fixtures prominently display their bulbs. Turns out electric lighting was a novelty back at the turn of the (other) century, and bulbs were flaunted rather than masked.

Before adopting its present moniker (adopted in 1995), the Byham was known as the Fulton, and earlier, the Gayety. The proof in this mosaic, unearthed during a renovation, greets theatergoers in the theater’s entryway.

Though it first opened on Halloween night and seats 1,313, the Byham is anything but unlucky. That it’s survived steps one through four is testament to Pittsburgh and, y’know, the power of art.

TheatreWorksUSA, the producer of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, does not endorse the opinions here reflected.

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