The History and Heritage of the New Granada Theatre
Prepared by the Hill Community Development Corporation (Hill CDC) for the
building Description, Design & Construction History of the proposed Heritage &
The Hill district in its heyday was one of Pittsburgh’s most vibrant and culturally rich communities. Located in the heart of the City, the community is home to one of the largest black populations in Pittsburgh. At the turn of the 20th century, the Hill District was home to a mixed population consisting of Jewish, Polish and African American residents. This cultural mixture added a special enchantment to the socio-cultural dynamics of the area. However, in the ensuing years, migration to the suburbs resulted in the area being a mainstay for the African American population. During the 1930s residents and visitors were surrounded by an atmosphere of cultural activities and entertainment that was enriched by the theatres, restaurants, hotels and ballrooms located in the Hill District.
"The City of Pittsburgh's federally funded 'urban renewal' of the hill District became perhaps the most powerful of all the forces that brought major changes in the politics of jazz musicians. In the1940s and early 1950s the city, without consulting the residents involved, decided to raze the sooty and often decrepit buildings in the Lower Hill that had housed thousands of African Americans, later targeting all of the structures that had made up the cultural district of the Hill for more than thirty-five years. the decision took on a nasty racist coloration when, in 1943, City Councilman George E. Evans wrote that 'approximately 90 per cent of the buildings in the area are substandard and have long outlived their usefulness, so there would be no social loss if they were all destroyed.”
"Better reasons existed for the urban renewal of the Hill district: deteriorating neighborhood infrastructures and a highly publicized desire to build a world-class center for the arts were used as justifications. The district did, it was claimed, house the greatest tax delinquency in Pittsburgh and required the greatest portion of the city's tax funds to service and maintain. As the 1950s rolled on, planners would increasingly concentrate their urban renewal efforts on Pittsburgh's serious lower-income housing shortage, a major problem aggravated by the redevelopment itself. City planners began by razing the Lower Hill residential district and thereby dispossessing thousands of blacks, who then crowded into the Upper Hill. This redevelopment displaced 1,239
African American families, 213 white families, and 16 businesses. In the face of racial
discrimination, poor and dispossessed black people had little choice of new housing."
A glamorous center for the arts, a complex that was to have included two grand theatres, a combination opera house and symphony hall, and an arts museum that might in some measure have justified the loss of so many jazz clubs, was supposed to have been built behind the new Civic Center and to have brought to the city a cultural center of national stature. All such plans were abandoned. When, in the aftermath of the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis, a weeks' worth of major riots broke out in Pittsburgh's Hill district, the remaining residents declared Crawford Street to limit of any further development.
The destruction of the District and its Wylie Avenue jazz scene and the rise of Pan-Africanism, Islam and black nationalism destroyed much of the remaining cultural confidence in the Great Migration, cast doubt on the efficacy of jazz in general as a way of life, and shone a harsh new political light on the segregationist politics and aesthetics of riverboat jazz. In the 1960s and 1970s world of interracial bitterness and recriminations, efforts to resurrect the excursion boat era on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers could only be seen as a step backward into an age of music, movement and migration that had produced for black Americans false promises and broken
The 1950s saw the beginning of desegregation in America. This trend opened many other doors of entertainment for African Americans. Residents of the Hill District were slowly allowed to patronize other establishments outside the area, thus reducing the market area for entertainment in the Hill District. In 1952 the Hill City Auditorium had closed and the famous Pittsburgh Savoy Ballroom relocated to the New Granada Theatre.
The residents of the Hill District would participate in gala pageantry when going to the New Granada to watch a movie. They would get dressed for an afternoon at the theatre, which would normally last about 3 hours. After entering the theatre patrons would pay at the ticket booth located at the Centre Avenue entrance. Once inside patrons were greeted
with the sweet and tantalizing aroma of hot buttered popcorn off to their left. In addition the concession stand boasted a smorgasbord of candies and soft drinks they could purchase for the movies. After choosing whether to purchase any goodies, they then proceeded to the entrance on the right.
The theatre is built like an indoor amphitheater with a sloping grade and carpeted center aisle. A 15-20 minute serial would first entertain the lucky viewers. The New Granada Theatre also did its part in the war effort by showing a 5-10 minute newsreel that provided the latest national and international news events. Following the newsreel, patrons would settle in for the feature film and on certain occasions, the viewers would be entertained by a second film. The New Granada showed top-grade feature films including those with all African American casts (which were not usually shown elsewhere in the city. The New Granada Theatre, the Roosevelt, the Rhumba and the Pastime Theatre were the only movie theatres operating in the Hill District. However, by 1942
the Roosevelt and New Granada were the only ones still in operation. The site of the Roosevelt Theatre now houses the Phoenix Shopping Center, leaving the New Granada Theatre as one the few historical and cultural landmarks yet standing in the Hill District.
Throughout its history the New Granada Theatre was the focal point and an active partner in community and neighborhood activities. The theatre box office was used to sell tickets for events occurring in the Savoy Ballroom. In addition the ballroom was used to host high school graduation balls and proms for the young residents of the Hill District. The stage of the theatre was occasionally used for live performances and amateur talent shows. Nevertheless during the 1950s the New Granada Theatre began to steadily lose patronage.
At least four major forces profoundly changed the Hill and greatly impacted the businesses there, diminishing the impact of the New Granada and Savoy in the community. Firstly as television slowly became a centerpiece of the American family culture, individuals and families spent less time and money at the movies. Secondly it was the nationwide trend toward home ownership and mobility as well as the northern migration of southern blacks seeking industrial work that moved many white residents out of the Hill and many poor, uneducated blacks in, thus lowering the economic base in the community. Thirdly desegregation opened up new entertainment options for the African Americans. Fourthly and most acutely a massive urban renewal project executed in 1956 wiped out the entire Lower Hill just north of the New Granada. The once-thriving business district was completely fractured and the large-domed Civic Arena and high-rise buildings constructed there isolated the neighborhood from downtown. These factors combined to significantly decrease the patronage of the New Granada theatre and the Savoy Ballroom.
A decade later the 1968 riots following the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. further decimated the neighborhood and reduced patronage of the theater and ballroom. The quality of the movies and the condition of the theater both declined although enough patrons remained to keep the theater open through the early 1970s following Ernest Stern’s purchase of the building in 969. Failed economic revitalization efforts, however, marked the end on an era of entertainment in the Hill District and the closure of the New Granada Theatre.
However, long after its closure the building was still put to use. Social service organizations such as Hill City and the House of Culture used the building for office space. Hill City maintained offices there as did Pittsburgh’s City Theater and the House of Culture, a drug rehabilitation program. Hill City provided intervention services for juvenile delinquents in the Hill District and surrounding neighborhoods. The House of Culture was a drug rehabilitation program that served residents of the Hill District community. Also architects working with the City to develop revitalization plans for the community used office space within the building. Stern also leased the ballroom for the storage of classic automobiles. It is unclear exactly when the building was abandoned. It was purchased by the Hill Community Development Corporation in 1995.
The History of the Buildings
The Pythian Temple
The building that was later to become known as the New Granada theatre was built in 1927-28 by a group of black construction workers belonging to Union Local 111 who were known as the Colored Knights of the Pythias. The Pythian Temple, as it was originally called, was built as the lodge house for the Knights housing a first-floor banquet and drill hall, a second floor ballroom and third floor offices. Residents recalled seeing the workers climbing scaffolds to bring the bricks and mortar required in building this dramatic art deco structure. Its grand opening was surrounded by the pomp and pageantry of a march as the Knights of the Pythias and their families walked through the area to their new residency. The ground floor was converted to a roller skating rink in 1935 and a movie theater in 1936-37 at which time the building’s name was changed to the New Granada Theatre. The ballroom continued to be used as such until it closed
in the early 1970s. The building continued to be used for office and storage space until an unspecified date, probably in the mid-1980s. It has been vacant since that time.
The Pythian Temple was a 3-story building that expanded from the corner of Devilliers Street and Centre Avenue to the corner of Devilliers Street and Wylie Avenue. The New Granada’s main entrance was located on Centre Avenue, while the entrance o the Hill City auditorium and Ballroom was on Wylie Avenue. The first floor was the dining room which had seating for over 100 people. The Knights of the Pythias women’s Auxiliary used this area to provide lunches and dinners. The facilities were rented to other entities as well to provide additional income for the organization. The unfortunate economic conditions of the 1930s increased competition in the city and the required tax and debt burden on the building created a deficit for the Knights and they consequently sold the building to the owner of the Granada Theatre.
The New Granada Theatre
In the 1930s Harry Hendel, owner of the original Granada Theatre, the Elmore Theatre and the Savoy Ballroom, bought the Pythian Temple. The Granada Theatre was located at 1854 Centre Avenue and upon the purchase of the Pythian Temple the theater was closed and relocated to its new site at 2009-13 Centre Avenue. With the new address came the new name: the New Granada Theatre. The Pythian Temple then was modified to capture Harry Hendel’s vision of the New Granada Theatre. The first floor originally the dining hall was converted into a theatre. The second floor retained its features as ballroom and eventually housed the Hill City Auditorium and later the Savoy Ballroom. The third floor of the building continued to be used as office space for the management of the Granada theatre and the Savoy Ballroom.
It is unclear exactly what year the building fell into disuse. Unfortunately this proud vestige of the Hill District history now lies dormant and vacant. In November 1995 the Hill Community Development Corporation (Hill CDC) purchased the building. It is their intention to recapture the vibrancy and vitality of the New Granada Theatre and bring it back to life.
Presently the area has no cultural amenities except the Hill House Auditorium. The
restoration of the New Granada Theatre and the development of vacant lots surrounding the site will be the catalyst for future business, housing, economic and social developments in the Hill District.
Pythian Temple was designed by Louis A. S. Bellinger, an African American architect who received his bachelor’s degree from Howard University, conducted graduate work at Carnegie Institute of Technology and served as assistant architect for the City of Pittsburgh from 1923-1926 before entering private practice. The significance to the African American community of Mr. Bellinger’s retention for the Pythian Temple project is reflected in the low number of African American architects employed during this
time. The 1930 Census listed only 63 African American architects in the entire United States compared to 22,000 whites employed in the same field equivalent to 0.03 percent. The City of Pittsburgh does not possess any record of Mr. Bellinger’s specific work for the city. Similarly Mr. Bellinger is not listed as a member of the American Institute of Architects and thus neither that organization not any published directory of architects provide any information on his work either public or private practice. In a Pittsburgh Courier article announcing the construction of the Pythian Temple, however, the people’s Gospel Tabernacle of Ebenezer Baptist church in Pittsburgh is attributed to Mr. Bellinger. Hill District residents also recall Mr. Bellinger designing an apartment building on Francis Street which also housed his office. Both buildings have since been demolished, however, and no photographs could be located. The Courier also credits Mr. Bellinger with designing the Publication board building of the African Methodist Episcopal church
in Philadelphia, private residences in Squirrel Hill and other Pittsburgh neighborhoods and
apartment buildings and schools throughout the country. The Pythian Temple, then, stands as Bellinger’s only remaining known work, and it is likely it was his most grand.
Under the direction of Hodder Construction Company of Braddock, Pennsylvania, African
American bricklayers from the Masons of the Seventh District constructed the Temple, working for a fraction of the standard wages at the time. The estimated construction costs for the Temple were $210,000. The Beaux-Arts style of the building reflects the national trend toward ornately designed fraternal lodges in the early decades of the 20th century. The formal design of the building, its imposing structure, and the large lot upon which it sits symbolize the stature of the Colored Knights of Pythias in the community in the late 1920s as well as the prosperity the group enjoyed prior to the Great Depression. This symbolism is especially pronounced when the Temple is contrasted with the simple, brick residential and commercial row houses, the residential brownstones and the
small detached single residence and apartment buildings, all set on narrow lots, which dominated the Hill.
In 1935 after the Pythians lost the building, the first floor of the Temple was converted to a roller a skating rink, although no exterior changes were made. In 1936-37 the ground floor was again converted, this time to a movie theater. The changes to the building’s exterior were technically minor but visually pronounced. A one-story buff-brick addition to the building at the southwest corner was designed by Pittsburgh architect Alfred M. Marks. Marks’ previous projects included Pittsburgh’s Jewish Home for the Aged, portions of Montefiore Hospital in the hill, portions of State Teacher’s college in California, Pennsylvania, and public housing projects. The most marked change to the exterior was the addition to the first floor of a sheet-metal, porcelain-enameled streamline Moderne-style façade. The new pastel green and bright red, blue and yellow face added lively color to the stately, buff-colored building. This alteration reflected an important trend in theater design in the 1930s. simpler than the zigzag Moderne-style of the 1920s, the streamline Moderne-style lent itself to inexpensive materials and basic designs.
Accordingly it was easily applied to the facades of older buildings, allowing for a quick, colorful update which would both attract patrons and reflect the fantasy element of the cinema occurring inside. This new trend in theater design was displayed throughout Pittsburgh, although today no active examples remain except for the New Granada and The Rex Theater on the South Side remains and has been converted into a bar-lounge and night club. East Liberty’s Enright Theater has been demolished and the Brighton Theater on the city’s North Side has been converted into a union hall.
The New Granada Theatre is a 3-story, Beaux-Arts style building with a rectangular plan, steel frame construction, a poured concrete foundation and a flat, asphalt roof which has collapsed. Construction of the building was completed in 1928. The building is located in a commercial corridor in the Hill District. During the late19th and early 20th century the neighborhood, just north of downtown was home to many immigrant groups including Jewish, African American, Italian and Irish. Today it is a poor, predominantly African American neighborhood, although both white and black middle-class residents are beginning to move back. the building stands on the north side of Centre Avenue, east of Devilliers Street and spans north to Wylie Avenue, where a second entrance fronts the street. The lot on which the building sits slopes steeply upward to the north. Accordingly the Wylie Avenue entrances open directly into the second floor ballroom. At present
the building’s exterior shows significant deterioration although the original architectural detail as well as most of the Moderne-style detail added in 1937 remains.
The Centre Avenue front is 65 feet wide and 52 feet high and the building is 160 feet deep. The Centre Avenue front is faced in buff brick with terra-cotta trim above a modernistic ground floor. The ground floor is faced in blue, red and pale-green sheet metal coated in porcelain enamel. A horizontal yellow sign of the same materials braes the building’s name, New Granada, in blue block lettering. The fascia of this ground floor, which swells prominently at the ends, dates from the building’s conversion to a movie theater in late 1936 or early 1937. A vertical, oblong sign with the same coloring also bearing the building’s name was once affixed to the southwest corner of the building but has since been removed. A 1-story addition was constructed in late 1936 or early 1937 at the building’s southwest corner to accommodate a ticket booth and lobby. Above the ground floor the original masonry exterior of the Pythian temple remains, three stories
high and three large bays wide, each bay contains four regularly spaced windows. The brickwork is in running bond with some headers around the openings. The second and third stories in each bay are framed in narrow shafts triangular in section with culs-de-lampe below the second floor window sills and foliated pinnacles above the third floor window heads. A molding runs immediately above each quarter of third-floor windows. In the spandrels between second- and third-floor windows are square, glossy, dull-red terra cotta medallions containing escutcheons. The third-floor windows in each bay are connected by a terra-cotta molding at sill level. A label, returned downward at each pier, runs one course above the window heads to connect all the windows of the façade. At the top is a crenellated parapet with a terra-cotta coping. Under each
merlon is a dull-red glossy terra-cotta plaque with an escutcheon under an ogee arch. The adjacent side wall facing Devilliers Street is of red face brick with an in-line of white brick, rectangular with re-entering corners. The remainder of the side wall is of red common brick.
The rear wall on Wylie Avenue is faced in buff brick laid in running band with headers used for trim. A buff terra-cotta tablet bears the legend PYTHIAN TEMPLE A.D. 1927. Interior surfaces are for the most part brick at exterior walls and construction tiles at partition walls and encasing structural steel beams. The Centre Avenue side features three double-door entrances, spaced evenly across the front of the building. A description of the original plans indicates that the Centre Avenue entrances opened into a banquet and drill hall, fronted by a lobby decorated in Italian marble with a terrazzo floor. The east side of the lobby housed a coat room which is still intact though deteriorated. A kitchen was also housed on this floor although it is unclear where it was located.
The first floor now houses a highly deteriorated motion picture theatre, installed in late 1936 or early 1937. The modest central lobby has a ceiling which steps up in three tiers toward the center of the space. Stairs rise to the upper floors to the east while the lobby extension from the 1936 addition extends to the west. This one story extension is the most intact space on the first floor, containing display panels for movie posters on the west and north walls. The west wall steps back in curved panels toward the center. The theatre space consists of five bays; the projection booth is suspended in the upper section of the first bay nearest the lobby and the stage area occupies a sixth bay to the north. The concrete floor slopes gently down toward the stage. The metal channels that remain attached to the ceiling imply a tapered profile on the principle cross beam and a stepped up central panel within each east-west bay. Remnants of plaster fluted pilasters overlaid on a rusticated background remain at most of the piers on the east and west walls. The original seats with laminated wood backs, while greatly deteriorated, show some original fluted detail on the metal end panels.
The second floor houses a ballroom and last known as the Savoy Ballroom that consisted of hardwood floors and a revolving crystal ball which was once the building’s historical centerpiece. It is reached by a set of wide stairs that rise from the southeast corner of the first floor lobby. It can also be reached through the Wylie Avenue entrance. A balcony occupies the entire section of the front of this floor while similar to the theatre below, five open bays from the ballroom space itself. The stage floor which remains occupies the north end of the space in a sixth bay. A green room with a small interior sits at the west end of the stage. The floor of this room has completely collapsed. A small interior staircase leads up to two dressing rooms which sit on an elevated floor behind the stage. As originally designed the ballroom was decorated in classical style with a hardwood floor. Presently the plaster ceiling and the metal framing of the ballroom lie
on the floor. On the east and west walls remnants of plaster fluted ionic pilasters beneath a classical frieze with dentals remain. A coatroom occupies the space under metal steps to the balcony. Five red banners each with a white block letter “S” still span the bays.
The third floor has maintained its layout from its use as a lodge for the Colored Knights of
Pythias. A simple ornamental metal stair rises from the center front of the second floor and arrives at a central north-south corridor on the third floor. Smaller rooms occupy the front of the building while pairs of large lodge rooms accessed by a common anteroom line each side of the corridor. While the plan maintains its original layout no decorative details remain. At the north end of the building the floor has collapsed but smaller rooms occupy this floor as well as the floor immediately below which occupies the space above the second floor stage.
The building has suffered extensive water damage and has suffered major losses to the roof covering and sheathing. Except for a few traces all the interior plaster surfaces have delaminated from the walls and the ceilings and fallen on the floor.
Black Ethnic Heritage
The Pythian Temple/New Granada Theatre is significant as a local example of black ethnic heritage both for its association with the Colored Knights of Pythias fraternal order from 1928 through the early 1930s and for its subsequent association with numerous local and world renowned jazz musicians from its opening through the early 1970s. As home to the largest and most ornate ballroom in the Hill District, a ground-floor movie theater from 1937 through the early 1970s, the building’s association with local African American architect Louis A. S. Bellinger as well as African American bricklayers lends it significance in design and construction. The Colored Knights of Pythias are a shrinking, though extant, African American fraternal order whose rites are modeled after the Knights of Pythias, an organization that did not admit African American in the early decades of the 20th century. Pittsburgh’s Damon Lodge of the Colored Knights of Pythias, granted a charter in 1905 was the second oldest lodge in Pennsylvania. The
Damon Lodge was in good company; in the first decade of the 20th century, the Colored Knights of Pythias claimed 70,000 members. Much fanfare surrounded the completion of Pittsburgh’s Pythian Temple.
The Pythians staged parades over the course of several days and more that 10,000 people attended a March 25, 1928 ceremony at which the cornerstone was laid. The African American colonial Band of Pittsburgh provided music for the ceremony. While the first floor banquet and drill hall and the third floor offices and anterooms were used primarily by the Pythians, the second floor ballroom quickly became an entertainment and socialization hub for the entire community and guests from outlying areas.
The Pythian Temple Ballroom provided many African Americans in the Hill District and elsewhere in Pittsburgh their first opportunity to participate in dances, one of the popular entertainment forms of the day. Prior to 1928 African Americans from the Hill District attended dances at such venues as Olympia and West View parks but they were not permitted to dance at these events. Thus the Pythian Temple became a landmark in the community. The Ballroom also introduced residents of the Hill District to a variety of nationally known musicians and nurtured the careers of many budding local musicians. Two of the first musicians to play the Pythian Temple were Benny Carter and Fletcher Henderson, who were well known recording artists. The dances drew so
much attention and were so well attended that in 1929 the Pythians hired African AmericanSellers Hall to manage the ballroom and book big-name acts. Halls first booking was the nationally known Jungalier Orchestra. Other big names who began to grace the stage included Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. Local musicians who began to rise to fame at the Pythian Temple Ballroom at this time include Lois B. Deppe, “Broadway’s favorite baritone” and Earl “Fatha” Hines. Patrons came from Ohio, West Virginia and various cities across Pennsylvania to attend these affairs.
In January 1932 the Pythian Temple hosted the largest crowd in its history when the Pittsburgh Courier, the nation’s pre-eminent African American newspaper, crowned Duke Ellington the King of Jazz in a concert and presentation broadcast nationally over radio station WCAE. This event shattered previous attendance records of any such event in the city and to date has never been equaled. Nearly 3,000 patrons from as far as New York City, including Ellington’s mother, wife, sister and son, watched as Ellington was presented with the Courier’s “Loving Cup.” Ellington’s mother later expressed her gratitude for the event and her son’s honor to the Courier in a letter to the editor. The people of the Hill District still refer to the crowning of the King of Jazz as the event
“That will always be second to none in the annals of time of the Hill District.”
The Great Depression devastated many fraternal organizations across the United States.
Pittsburgh’s Damon Lodge of the Colored Knights of Pythias was no exception. By 1935 the chapter had lost the Temple and declined in prominence in the African American community. Sell Hall retained control of the Pythian Temple Ballroom, however, and attempted to continue staging events there but soon he, too, proved financially unable to sustain the venue.
In August 1935 African American Bob Ellis took over management of the Pythian Temple
Ballroom and closed the venue for one month in order to remodel. The Gold and Silver Ballroom staged its first major event when it hosted Jimmy Lunceford and his NBC Band on September 16, 1935. Advance tickets, available at the Roosevelt Theater across the street as well as at various local businesses, were 75 cents and 90 cents at the door. The centerpiece of the remodeling was the large crystal ball which cast soft, multicolored lights across the room. September 19, 1935, Ellis opened a roller skating rink on the first floor of the building, providing recreational opportunity previously unavailable to the African American residents of the Hill and the rest of Pittsburgh who were not permitted admission to the city’s whites-only skating rinks.
Another major event during Ellis’ tenure was an April 1936 concert by Louis Armstrong. The concert was one of the first in the city following a devastating flood in March and Armstrong donated the proceeds to African American flood victims. The Courier noted both the excitement and pride inherent in the event. “But when Louis himself advanced to the stage… there was SILENCE!” the paper reported. In describing the conclusion of the show, the paper reported “The greatest outburst of spontaneous applause ever to be heard in the hall built by Negroes and now run by a Negro… Bob Ellis… swept over the place.” The paper also noted that the Pythian Temple Ballroom was the only venue in the Hill District, and perhaps in all of Pittsburgh, that could have held the capacity crowd of 2,200.
The Gold and Silver Ballroom was short lived. Harry Hendel, a Jewish American who owned the Granada Theater and the Savoy Ballroom, both on Centre Avenue, took over the building in 1936 and converted the ground floor into a movie theater. Hendel closed his Granada Theater and named his new venue the New Granada. As soon as it opened in May 1937 the 1,025-seat New Granada Theatre became a top attraction
in the Hill. With five shows daily it was not uncommon for children to arrive for the first film at 1 PM and remain through the last film which ended at 8 or 9 PM. Often they would bring their lunch. At least one Hill District resident recalls sitting through the same film 3 or 4 times in a row. Another attraction of the theater was its air conditioning which, when it opened, was one of the only two theaters in the Hill with this amenity.
In addition to showing such classic films as Casablanca and Samson and Delilah, the New Granada showed many films of particular interest to the Hill’s African American residents. The Duke is Tops, starring world famous Pittsburgh singer Lena Horne in her film debut, premiered at the New Granada in 1938. Other popular African American films were shown there including Bronze Buckaroo, Dark Sands with Paul Robeson, Reform School and Paradise in Harlem. In the 1950s the theater showcased a series of documentary films dealing with Negro America, beginning with a seven-day run of The Negro in Education. In 1939 popular screen stars “Dusty” noted as the sepia cowboy king of comedy and his pals the “Four Tones” made live appearances on November 26-28 at the New Granada Theatre stage.
Musical events returned to the building in 1941 with the opening of the Hill City Auditorium on the second floor. The lavish ballroom was described as having indirect lighting, beautiful Venetian blinds, colorful drapes, wall murals and a revolving crystal ball. Operated by the social service group Hill City, the auditorium began its glorious and magnificent history on Easter Monday, April 14, 1941 with a Hollywood-style opening: its grand inaugural Easter Ball featuring musical greats Earl “Fatha” Hines and his Orchestra with Billy Eckstine and Madeline Green, the “Sweethearts”
of the Earl Hines band. Proceeds from the auditorium’s events were “Dedicated to the moral and physical uplift of the underprivileged boys and girls of this community.” Subsequently the Hill City Auditorium hosted several musical jazz giants and was nurturer for local talents. During the 1940s Hill City hosted notable artists such as Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton, King Perry, Sol Albright, Charlie Barnet, Tiny Bradshaw, Carl Brown, Leroy Brown, Art Farrar, Jimmie Lunceford, Lil Green, Joe Westray and the historical girls’ band the “Sweethearts of Rhythm.” Other musical groups such as “The Cats and the Fiddle” and Art Blakey and his Rhythm Maniacs made live performances on stage.
By January 1945, Hendel had moved his Savoy Ballroom, previously located near Centre and Kirkpatrick, to the New Granada’s second floor. From 1945 until the early a970s, the New Savoy Ballroom served as a stopping off point for major artists traveling between New York and Chicago. Pittsburghers were introduced to a new generation of major jazz artists during this time such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Nat “King” Cole and Miles Davis that graced the New Savoy Ballroom stage in this era. The musicians would stop while on individual tours or as part of the package tours featuring numerous popular artists. The first such concert was the Cavalcade of Jazz in 1946. Artists on the bill included Charlie Ventura, Ben Webster, Big Sid Catlett, Dinah Washington and Pittsburgher Mary Lou Williams who along with fellow locals Billy Eckstine, Billy Strayhorn, George Benson and Stanley Turrentine made
names for themselves at the Savoy and other numerous jazz clubs opening up in the Hill, East Liberty and Homewood at this time as well.
By the 1960s big-name shows at the Savoy became more infrequent. Still another new musical era was showcased there with soul and R & B acts such as the OJays, Peaches and Herb, Billy Stewart, Barbara Mason, The Five Stairsteps, and James Brown giving performances. They were backed by a house band called Vann Harris and the Vannguards led by Ira Vann Harris, son of Pittsburgh Courier photographer, now legend, Charles “Teenie” Harris who had taken the most famous photos in the Hill City Auditorium in the 1940s. The theater closed on a classic note, however. Count Basie played what may have been the final show at the New Savoy in 1973 or1974.
1. Kenney, William Howland, Jazz on the River, University of Chicago Press, 2005.
The Board of Trustees, Executive director and staff of the Hill Community Development
Corporation (Hill CDC) would like to thank all individuals who took the time to share with us their memories and oral history of the Hill District and the New Granada Theatre. Special thanks go out to Mr. Dwayne Cooper, Mr. Carl Redwood, Ms. Thelma Lovette, Ms. Mary Walker, Ms. Edna Council and Ms. Josephine Roberts. Information regarding the Theatre was also gathered
through library research and reviews of the oral editions of the Pittsburgh Courier (1937-1954).
Edited by Nelson E. Harrison, Ph. D.