The Oaks Theater in Oakmont to become performance arts venue |

The Oaks Theater in Oakmont to become performance arts venue

Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Joe Wichryk II, manager and program director at the Oaks Theater, sits among the equipment in the projection room at the Oakmont landmark.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Joe Wichryk II, manager and program director at the Oaks Theater, outside the Oakmont landmark, where programming and building changes will occur for a September debut.

The Oaks Theater wants to provide more lively entertainment.

Long an anchor to Oakmont's business district with its classic single-screen theater, The Oaks is converting to a multi-purpose performance arts venue.

Renovations to the 76-year-old building are under way as the theater changes to better accommodate live performances such as concerts, speeches and comedy acts.

The theater will continue to show movies, according to co-owner Meg Burkardt, but more intermittently and with a stronger focus on cult-classic and independent films.

“We wanted to offer a different type of experience,” she said. “It's difficult to compete with the 10-screen multiplexes when you're just screening films. The shift to digital filmmaking also really made us take a hard look at the future of the theater.

“So we wanted to do what we've always done, and go for a crowd that's looking for something more than your typical shopping mall experience.”

To help guide the theater though its transformation, ownership hired a new manager with experience in business and entertainment.

Joe Wichryk II, a former Beaver County bar and restaurant owner who works with comedy troupes like the Cellar Dwellers out of Rochester, Beaver County, and the Pittsburgh-based Hustlebot, is working to have the theater's transformation complete by September.

Planned changes

Theatergoers will recognize the changes immediately upon entering the building.

The concession stand that now dominates the lobby will be replaced with a full-service bar, at which patrons can take advantage of the theater's liquor license.

And where now stands an adjacent rotunda will go a small platform, possibly with a piano, to stage musicians as they perform cocktail music before the main shows begin.

The entranceway's walls and carpeting will all be replaced, Wichryk said, to reflect a cabaret-style parlor, rather than a movie theater lobby.

“We want that entranceway or lobby area to look very elegant and refined,” he said. “I think it's going to be a place that pops and looks very distinguished. It will be a place that people really want to sit down to enjoy some music and a cocktail.”

To seat those people, a terrace will be built into the left hand wall of the entranceway with a handful of coffee tables.

People will not only be able enjoy a drink at the tables, but can also order a meal as the theater looks to build a kitchen in the second floor near the projectors.

To maintain both bar and kitchen, Wichryk said, the theater will likely add between 10 and 15 employees this fall.

“We're definitely going to need more people,” he said. “We want to be able to support the kitchen and bar and, obviously, we have to take care of the entertainment side of things as well.”

In the theater itself, the last six rows will be removed and the ground leveled.

A lounge area replete with tables and stools will take its place.

And against the back wall, they'll build a small stage for “smaller and more intimate performances.”

The larger acts will take the main stage, which will be built in front of the theater's single screen.

Management and ownership are still undecided on how The Oaks' classic marquee will change. They've already decided to shift to a digital display, Wichryk said. But what will become of the four vertical letters that spell the theater's name remains up in the air.

“With the additional acts we're going to have here, it's just not practical to stick with the analog marquee,” he said. “We're going to try to maintain as much of the original feel as possible. We don't want people to think we're completely changing the theater. It's going to have the same type of classic feel it always has.”

According to co-owner Marc Serrao, there's one thing about The Oaks that will never change.

Once the realization sunk in last year that the theater's digital projector couldn't keep to the standard of newer films, ownership ran through a gamut of possibilities to keep The Oaks relevant.

He said they seriously considered the possibility of converting the theater to a multiplex with three screens.

“But then we said, ‘We can't mess this room up, it's so beautiful,' ” Serrao said. “We knew we were going to keep the art deco style, and definitely the oak leaf lights that line the theater wall.”

Brief closing probable

The theater last week canceled all weekday showings to expedite its transition.

Wichryk said they'll continue showing the Moonlit Matinees — typically classic films — on weekend nights for as long as possible. It's doubtful the program will continue through August, he said, since a brief closing is probable prior to the grand reopening.

The closing will be needed primarily because of electrical upgrades to accommodate the live bands the theater hopes to attract.

“This is going to be a venue for local artists to showcase, where they don't get opportunities elsewhere,” Wichryk said. “Whether they're musicians, comedians, guest speakers, actors or filmmakers, it's going to be a spot where people from all over the area can come and enjoy some great local talent.”

Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or [email protected].

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