The Entertainment Chuckwagon: 30 years of Southland 9

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When you first enter Southland 9 Cinemas, one of the first sights you’re treated to are images of iconic movie stars depicted on two murals.

When you first enter Southland 9 Cinemas, one of the first sights you’re treated to are images of iconic movie stars depicted on two murals, including screen legends like Marilyn Monroe, Laurel & Hardy, The Three Stooges, Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa, Sean Connery as James Bond, Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name, Shatner & Nimoy as Captain Kirk & Mr. Spock, John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, Robin Williams as Popeye, Judy Garland as Dorothy and, last but certainly not last, E.T. as himself.

Artist Stan Zimmerman painted the murals back in 1986 when the cinema first opened for business, and today they serve as both part of the building’s history and a nostalgic, unique reminder of a simpler more care free era of my own life, taking me back to the late 80s when I saw movies here during my childhood.

I saw a lot of my favorite films for the first time at Southland 9. Through the magic of film, it was the silver screens on which I first witnessed Michael Keaton’s Batman save Gotham City from the evil clutches of Jack Nicholson’s Joker, discovered Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and joined Doc and Marty in a flying DeLorean for a fantastical time travel adventure into both the future and the Old West. In later years, it’s where I first viewed Jurassic Park, The Lion King, Harry Potter, Finding Nemo, Captain America: The First Avenger, Super 8, Guardians of the Galaxy, Spectre, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

This year marks Southland’s 30th birthday, but the cinema’s history actually spans a period of 13 years, beginning in 1973 on July 3 when Cinema World, a four screen movie theater on Route 51 in West Mifflin, first opened their doors.

Cinema World was a successful business, but as we departed the 70s era of sideburns and bell bottoms and moonwalked into the Reagan years, the public demanded larger theaters with more screens. Hollywood was releasing more movies and the video rental craze was in its infancy. Home VCRs were expensive, as were individual movies on video, with one video costing consumers as much as $80.

Simply put, if you wanted to see a movie reasonably close to its release date, with content not potentially edited for television, you had to go to the cinema.

Movie theaters were expanding in size to include more than one, two or even four screens, requiring more space for more screens on which to show more films. As a result, in 1985 Cinema World relocated from their original space to a larger building able to house more screens.

Southland 9 held their grand opening on May 23, 1986, with four features being shown on four different screens beginning at 7 p.m. The first four films screened were Top Gun, Cobra, Poltergeist II and Out of Africa. A week later, two more screens were added, and by mid June, there were nine different screens showing films at Cinema World Southland 9.

The original Cinema World remained open until April of 1987, and today the property is the site of a Toys R Us.

Based upon my research of newspaper archives and talking with residents of West Mifflin, I got a glimpse into the building’s history. Originally the site was the home of the Wesley Bowling Alley. A restaurant and shoe rental stand occupied the space now occupied by the concession stand, with the bowling lanes below stairs. Nowadays, the lower level of the building houses the theater itself.

Over the years, various events, promotions, and fundraisers have been held at the theater. For example, on April 3, 1990, Southland 9 joined sister theater Cinema World Theatre at Cranberry Mall in screening an all day baseball movie marathon, showing the films The Natural, The Bad News Bears, Field of Dreams and Bull Durham for the cost of one regular admission.

Currently, Southland 9 helps raise money each year for Children’s Hospital, and donates popcorn to local school districts offering free movie nights for students and their families.

In April 1994, the Cinema World chain was sold to Carmike Theaters, which still owns and operates the theater today.

As I get older, I find myself reminiscing about the days of yore. So many places I enjoyed in my youth have either closed or changed to the point of being unrecognizable. However, Southland 9 retains many aspects of the theater’s history, including the carpet from their Cinema World days.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I mentioned several movies I saw for the first time at Southland 9. Perhaps most notable was Back to the Future II, which I saw on opening weekend in November 1989.

The first Back to the Future film inspired my lifelong fascination with time travel. In Back to the Future II, our heroes – Doc and Marty – traveled to the year 2015. 26 years later, it’s amazing how time flies! Though I didn’t get to see the original Back to the Future film in theaters, I saw the sequel on multiple occasions at Southland 9, which is why it still holds a special place in my heart.

What’s not to love? The flick’s got flying cars, hoverboards and 80s themed restaurants, oh my! More importantly, it filled 11-year-old me with hopeful optimism about the year 2015. Which brings us back to last year, on the evening of December 17, when I settled into my seat at Southland 9, 3-D glasses perched on my face, ready for the premiere of a little film you may have heard about, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
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Story by Chuck Brutz for Pennsylvania Bridges