Oaks Theater celebrates 80 years in Oakmont
A local business still open after 80 years is worth celebrating — which is exactly what Oaks Theater patrons did to commemorate the Oakmont landmark’s eighth decade of operation.
Everything but a red carpet was rolled out Friday night at 310 Allegheny River Blvd.
About 100 people attended the celebration. Former borough manager Adeline Brown was among them.
She recalled watching movies and a talent show every New Years Eve with friends.
“We would talk about that the whole year afterwards,” she said. “We’d come to the theater and meet up with our friends and have a good time … It brings back a lot of memories. This was our entertainment. It epitomizes small town America. I’ve always felt that way about Oakmont.”
Brown had a front-row seat for the festivities and blew out the candles on the theater’s birthday cake.
Jeff Berman and Susan Powers of Ohara Township, members of AppalAsia and Devilish Merry, provided acoustical music.
Oakmont Historical Society President Gary Rogers delivered a slide-show presentation of the Oaks’ history, including dozens of old photos from a bail bonds rally at the theater during World War II, its original seating and various promotional materials.
Built in 1938 by Steve Rodnok, the single-screen movie venue hosted children’s matinees, live radio broadcasts and talent shows in the 1940s and ‘50s.
It was designed by architect Victor Rogaumont and opened with “Letter of Introduction” with Adolphe Menjou and Andrea Leeds.
The Oaks went through several renovations by Rodnok. They included the installation of a panoramic screen and sound system in 1953 to a major paint job and moving the ticket booth from outside to the lobby in 1965.
The ticket booth was encompassed by a shark’s mouth to give the impression the ticket taker was being eaten when the Steven Speielberg classic “Jaws” debuted in 1975.
One of the more interesting stories from the presentation took place in November and December 1946.
“Oakmont was hit by a crime wave,” Rogers said. “Businesses and homes were being robbed in the middle of the night. People in the town were getting nervous.”
Rodnok installed a homemade burglar alarm, wired to a friend’s house on California Avenue.
It went off on Dec. 10, 1946. The two, accompanied by Oakmont police, caught the burglars trying to crack a safe. Rodnok shot and wounded one of the criminals.
Police found a vial of nitroglycerine in the getaway car during the course of the investigation, Rogers said.
The robbers were part of a gang with a plan to blow up a train in the Scranton area. Their gang leader was arrested in Westmoreland County.
“Thanks to Steve Rodnok’s homemade burglar alarm, they foiled their plan,” Rogers said.
The Oaks now is owned by Marc Serrao, his son Tony and attorney Meg Burkardt.
An upgraded sound system and bathrooms on the upper level are in the plans, said Serrao, who owns Oakmont Bakery with his family.
The last major renovation took place in 2015 to allow for live local comedy and music acts, as well as other programs while still offering movie nights.
Serrao, who acquired the property about 20 years ago, said the best part of the night was seeing Adeline Brown enjoy herself. But he said he also learned a lot of local history about the borough and the theater.
“I thought Gary’s presentation was so informative,” Serrao said. “I didn’t know half the stuff that he talked about, so I thought it was very interesting. It’s exciting to me that people care about it. A lot of single-screen theaters were at least closed for a portion of their lives, but the Oaks has been open for 80 years straight. I think that really speaks to the town.”
Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-871-2367, [email protected] or via Twitter @MikeJdiVittorio.