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A Story for the Big Screen

In 1985, The Strand Theater was holding on by a thread. The condition of the building and the public’s disinterest in live entertainment caused the theater to close in the early 1980s. Photo courtesy of the Zelienople Historical Society.
Zelienople’s Strand Theater has served up entertainment for years

The Strand Theater, a Zelienople, Pennsylvania fixture, has been providing entertainment and memories to its community for more than 100 years.

Founded in 1802 by German immigrant Dettmar Basse, Zelienople is a small town of about 10,000 acres and 4,000 residents. While it may be unknown to many people, the town has had a vibrant community for centuries. Families from many nations and a variety of businesses have created a rich culture and history for this Butler County community.

The opening act

In 1914, Italian immigrants Joseph and Rosalia Sapienza decided to give their South Main Street grocery store business a sequel. Joseph Sapienza’s original vision was to open a fruit market. However, after some convincing from a local banker, Star Theater was born instead. To make Sapienza happy, it was accompanied by a quaint fruit market in one-third of the building.

“From the beginning, the theater was a hit,” according to the commemorative book “Zelienople Yesterday, Today, & Tomorrow.” With the growing popularity of the theater, Sapienza’s fruit market eventually found a new home directly across the street. The family name still can be seen in the design of the stones on the front of the building today.

One of the few places with air conditioning in 1940, The Star drew crowds to see silent films with live piano accompaniment, the book says. Jack McMichael, a docent at the Zelienople Historical Society, recalls going to the theater when he was younger.

“When I was a little kid in the 1950s, I’d go on Friday nights. You paid 5 cents to see a silent movie that lasted five minutes. That was hot stuff,” McMichael said.

He recalls seeing a variety of cowboy movies and silent films.

“We were told they had burlesque, but we don’t think so,” he laughed.

After almost 40 years of ownership by the Sapienza family, the theater switched owners a few times. According to Images of America: Zelienople, the facility was owned by the Thomas family from the 1950s to the 1960s, and the Nalevanko family from the 1970s to the 1980s. The theater’s name change happened somewhere in these handoffs, McMichael said, but the timing of it is uncertain.

Curtain call

Once The Strand met the 1980s, its curtain call was imminent. The popularity of television at the time meant fewer people were excited by live entertainment. By 1985, the building had seen better days.

“There’s the marquee, still up,” McMichael says, pointing to an old photo of The Strand, “being held by Scotch tape. The inside was a rat hole. It was even a rat hole in the 1950s. But it closed down.”

The book “Images of America: Zelienople” notes what seemed to be the closing night of the theater.

“One of the last movies shown at the theater was Top Gun, released in 1986,” it reads. The theater then sat vacant for many years.

A worker installs a new marquee on the facade of the restored Strand Theater. Butler Eagle file photo
Finding an understudy

During this time, the North Main Street theater was considered to be turned into a number of things. Private investors wanted to convert the space into a mini-mall, dance school or dinner theater. According to The Strand’s self-published history, the FBI even considered using the building as a field office.

In 2001, however, the beloved theater was given new life when The Strand Theater Initiative was created. Ron Carter, president and executive director of the initiative, began the nonprofit corporation by chance. The idea came to him while taking his son to flag football practice.

“It kind of struck me. At the time, there was very little in terms of cultural attractions or programming in the north part of Pittsburgh,” he explains. “I started doing some research and came to the conclusion that this would be an outstanding performing arts venue.”

After finding a board of directors, the group fought to purchase the theater.

“One of the biggest hurdles we had to overcome was indifference,” Carter said. “It took us years to overcome that.”

Finally, in 2002, they obtained the building and began working on reviving The Strand.

“We spent eight years raising $2.5 million, which allowed us to do the renovations you see before you today,” Carter said, “That allowed us to reopen the building in 2009.”

The Strand’s reprise

Once renovations were complete, The Strand stepped into the spotlight once again.

“On July 16, 2009, we had our first program. We had a whole full week of grand opening programs. And it concluded with performances by Hollywood legend Debbie Reynolds,” Carter says with a smile. Known for movies such as “Singin’ in the Rain” and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” Reynolds’ visit to the small town was exciting for many.

Since then, The Strand has found success in hosting a variety of shows.

“We do a very eclectic mix of programming. The focus has always been about live programming,” Carter said.

The Strand hosts live theater, vintage and new movies, magic and comedy shows, tribute bands and a number of Broadway stars. Included in that cast is Manny Patinkin, known for his role as Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride.” He performed his concert Being Alive at the theater in February 2023.

The diverse programming has also created success for the theater by appealing to a wide range of audiences.

Carter says that since reopening the theater in 2009, it has drawn patrons from 17 Pennsylvania counties and 17 states because of its unique programming.

The ongoing success of The Strand has been a motivating factor for the initiative. The group hopes to expand the theater with the remainder of a three-part renovation. The first part, which has been completed, renovated the seating and the stage in the theater. Next, they plan on adding a full stage house and rear addition. Their plan concludes with construction of a multipurpose center and two-tiered parking deck behind the theater.

Carter took on The Strand Theater when he was unsure what to do next in life.

“It’s just one of those things where I was at a career crossroads, if I want to continue in corporate marketing, I’d have to move all over the country again, or find something that’s going to leave more of a legacy or have more of a lasting impression on a community — and this is what that has done.”

The Strand Theater is now part of the many small businesses and community events that are revitalizing downtown Zelienople and connecting its community. From the stage to the silver screen, The Strand Theater has made memories for generations.

Meg Nassif is a senior multimedia journalism major at Slippery Rock University from Greensburg, Pa.

The Sapienza family stands in front of their grocery store on South Main Street in Zelienople in 1913. Rosalia Sapienza is holding her son Leo and is accompanied by her other children Tom, Joe Jr., Jim, Tony and Sam. Photo courtesy of the book “Zelienople: Yesterday, Today, & Tomorrow”
The Sapienza family name remains in the design of the stones on the front of the building that served as their fruit market on North Main Street in Zelienople. Repurposed as a hair salon, the building sits across the street from the theater. Meg Nassif/Special to the Eagle
Old projectors from the original movie theater are displayed at The Strand Theater in Zelienople. Butler Eagle file photo
Country rockers NOMaD perform an accoustic show an The Strand Theater in Zelienople in 2017 during the 52nd Annual Horse Trading Days event. Butler Eagle file photo

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