“A place in a class by itself ” — A concise history of the Elmore Theatre, Savoy Ballroom, and Olivet Baptist Church
The Elmore Theatre was built in the year of 1923, and opened on the eighth of that September, under the management of Benjamin Engelberg. The new, 1000-seat theatre was the swankiest theater on the Hill, costing upwards of $150,000 (that’d be a cool $2 million today) and showing first-run movies accompanied by a $10,000 pipe organ—this was before ‘talkies’.
The live shows started that October, and for a time, the Elmore was happenin’, host to daring vaudeville acts and bombastic blues and jazz singers like Ma Rainey, ‘Jelly-Roll’ Morton and Bessie Smith. Musicians and performers traveling from New York to Chicago would stop in Pittsburgh, always in the Hill, often at the Elmore. The hip little theatre was riding high—for a time.
After a decade of bringing music and cinema to the Hill, the theater’s reputation started to slip. By 1930, Engelberg couldn’t attract enough live performers to the theatre, and it became strictly a movie-theatre again. Engelberg’s reputation slipped too, and by 1933, the swankiest theater in the Hill had run ragged.
That year, a Hill District businessman (today, he’d probably be called a “property developer”) started eyeing the Elmore. Hendel already owned the Roosevelt Theater, and he saw an opportunity in the Elmore building, even in its diminished state. He bought the building, hired a man named Chester Washington to manage it, and aimed to surpass the decadence and elegance of the original Elmore. He would re-name it Pittsburgh’s “Savoy Ballroom”.
By all accounts, he succeeded, and mightily. The newly-christened Savoy opened to rave reviews in the papers—
[Patrons] marveled at the modern crystal ball, with four spotlights, flashing their vari-colored lights on the mirrored surface and producing an effect which made a waltz a “thing of beauty and a Joy forever.” The ballroom, capable of accomodating 1500 people, is the finest thing of its kind the city has ever known … Uniformed attendants, including a doorman, a footman and checkroom workers, gives the place the swanky atmosphere of a metropolitan ballroom. Expensive carpets in which your feet sink almost to the ankles, gives one an intimate feeling of “belonging.” It’s a place in a class by itself.
It wasn’t long before the building, with a new name and new managment, was swingin’ again. Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington played. Ella Fitzgerald stopped in at the Pittsburgh Savoy with Chick Webb, together on their way from Chicago to the (admittedly, more famous) Savoy in New York City.
But the glitz and glitter of Pittsburgh’s original Savoy Ballroom wouldn’t even last as long as the ritz of the Elmore it replaced. Within 7 years, the club would once again be on the down-and-out. The Savoy Ballroom was moved into the second floor above Hendel’s most recent business, the New Granada Theatre, and by 1944—a decade after the opening of the Savoy, and two decades after the original Elmore Theatre—the building’s run as a pleasure palace was over.
By the 50’s the Elmore/Savoy building, and its history, had mostly been forgotten. In 1953 its ownership was transferred once again, and the building started another chapter in its life—serving as a hall of worship. The new church was an offshoot of an older neighborhood church in the Hill. As the church’s current Reverend told us, “Baptist churches are independent…a lot of things are left up to the [church] body.” In that independent spirit, 200 or so congregants up and left the Calvary Baptist Church on Wylie Ave. and founded the Olivet Baptist Church.
Today, the building’s old bones have been covered by drop ceilings, linoleum and wood paneling. But there are still signs of its history, if you look hard enough. Just inside the front doors, a small lobby leads up to the entrance hall. Out back, an old loading dock can be seen from the alley. A gap in the drop ceiling reveals the grand height of the ballroom, and the slightly raked floor under the church pews hints at the past. If only these walls could talk.