For nearly 50 years, the Nixon Theater was Pittsburgh’s premiere playhouse.
Opened in 1903, the French Beaux-Arts building stood on Sixth Avenue.
Its stage hosted a truly memorable parade of great actors, including Maude Adams, Ethel and John Barrymore, Tallulah Bankhead, Katherine Cornell, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Helen Hayes, Henry Irving, Richard Mansfield, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Lillian Russell and Ellen Terry.
The brick building’s architectural grandeur matched the high level of talent. Boxes that overlooked the orchestra seats were decorated in royal crimson, white and gold.
By 1916, Florenz Ziegfeld, the impresario famed for his Ziegfeld Follies, was using the Nixon as a place to try out candidates for his annual production. Broadway revues played the Nixon and movies were shown there, too.
The last performer to appear on the Nixon stage was the voluptuous Mae West, who starred in a farce called “Diamond Lil.” The Nixon had 2,183 seats but on the last night, West played to a capacity audience of 2,256.
On closing night in April 1950, actress Katherine Hepburn, who had starred in the stage version of “The Philadelphia Story” at the Nixon, sent telegrams to staff members.
To Johnny Branigan, property man for 43 years, Hepburn wired, “Nice to know you’ll be at the Senator when we come again. Will miss the Nixon Theater. How about the hooks and hangers in my dressing room. Would love to have them.”
To Sam Calhoun, backstage door man, Hepburn wrote, “You must be at the other theater when we come back. It won’t be the same unless you are there.”
When the Nixon Theater was razed to make way for the $10 million ALCOA building, the city and its theatergoers lost a great landmark from the Gilded Age.