Mel Luke’s store, The Flying Squirrel, is like an independent film: a low-budget labor of love with a cult following.
Despite critical acclaim, this shop specializing in unique toys and books, local crafts, nostalgic candies and small-batch ice cream is closing its doors after four years on Carnegie’s Main Street.
But, Luke is holding out hope for a Hollywood ending.
Earlier this month, she partnered with Susan Mazur, board president of Jump Cut Theater, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the neighborhood theater experience in Pittsburgh. The group sprang from the Friends of the Hollywood Theater, which operated the historic Dormont-based cinema from 2011 until the building was sold in February.
Together, Luke and Mazur hope to transform The Flying Squirrel into an old-fashioned movie house.
“This is the best lemonade we could make out of a lot of nasty, rotten lemons,” Luke says with a laugh. “This seems like the perfect way to save two very beloved things.”
Partnerships and possibilities
About 60 people attended a Carnegie Borough council meeting on April 9, where Luke and Mazur announced their plans to convert the 104-year-old building into a single-screen, 45-seat theater with a condensed retail shop that would sell concessions and pop culture-themed items. Current business partnerships with Leona’s Ice Cream and the Pittsburgh Ice Cream Co. would continue in the as yet unnamed movie house.
Carnegie officials are in favor of the project and are working to adjust the borough’s new zoning ordinance, approved in November, to include a theater or small viewing room in the business district. Public hearings will be held within the next few months.
“From a zoning standpoint we’ll have to look at occupancy, accessibility and safety items, but everybody was in favor of the proposal,” Borough Manager Stephen Beuter says. “It would add value and a nostalgic aspect to the business district.”
The borough was once home to several independent movie theaters, but hasn’t had one in operation since the 1970s.
New, single-screen venues, such as Lawrenceville’s Row House Cinema and The Parkway Theater in McKees Rocks, are thriving and attracting increased foot traffic in their respective business districts.
One headquarters, plus multiple pop-ups
Jump Cut would rent the space as its headquarters. But Mazur, who specializes in nonprofit consulting and accounting, says the 180-member group plans to use larger, satellite locations when it holds affairs that require more seating. Those include the group’s popular Noir Nights, “Purple Rain” party and month-long Halloween celebration of horror favorites.
Since moving out of the Hollywood Theater, the organization has held events at different venues around the city, including the Carnegie Stage on West Main Street. The Original Breakfast & a Movie, one of Jump Cut’s most popular programs during its Dormont days, will continue on May 27 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall on Beechwood Avenue. They’ll screen Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” with food provided by Food by Lyndsey.
Pop-up theater events, complete with a portable screen, also are on Mazur’s to-do list as a way to bring the independent movie-going experience to areas dominated by — or devoid of — multiplexes.
Mazur says that losing the Hollywood still hurts. But she realizes that unique programming brought people in and it’s what will make them follow Jump Cut — which, in filmmaking lingo, is an abrupt transition from one scene to another — to its new home.
Luke shares the hope that solid, creative programming will bring crowds.
“We’re losing these iconic American things, like indie theaters, at an alarming rate. We need to hold onto them,” she says. “The folks at Jump Cut aren’t afraid to take a stand. It helps Pittsburgh. It helps Carnegie stay weird and full of creative businesses. It will make Carnegie a destination as long as we keep it super local and interesting.