It's been a small-but-persistent little news story in Philadelphia over the past several years: The last remaining old-school, ultra-cool, Art Deco movie palace in the city was in serious danger of being destroyed, thus removing any reminder of Golden Age cinematic history from The City of Brotherly Love. How could this happen? How could one of the oldest, largest and most unquestionably awesome cities in the nation be stripped of its last remaining movie palace?
Well, it came pretty darn close to Wrecking Ball Central, but thanks in large part to the efforts of one local attorney, the beautiful Boyd Theater is now enjoying a long-overdue facelift ... and the doors will swing open again in early 2007. While I silently sat by and read the news reports, my heart went from sad to skeptical to hopeful to thrilled when the good news came down. Howard Haas and his passionate band of supporters were able to save the theater! And here's how they did it:
The Boyd is the last remaining "movie palace" in all of Philadelphia. How many did our city used to have, and why do you think it's so important to keep this one standing?
Howard Haas: Philadelphia had several hundred single-screen movie theaters. A "movie palace" is a more specific term. To qualify, the movie theater needs, among other factors, to be huge -- more than a thousand seats -- and ornate. Philadelphia had dozens of movie palaces. The Boyd is the last survivor in downtown (aka Center City) Philadelphia. The Uptown Theatre survives in Philadelphia near Temple University, but has long been closed.
The Boyd must survive for several reasons:
1. Philadelphia should not lose the Boyd for the sake of its history! For much of the 20th Century, everybody from the working class to the wealthy enjoyed a movie together in ornate surroundings. The Boyd had its own wonderful history. The local run of Gone with the Wind was held at the Boyd. Grace Kelly appeared [there] to promote High Noon. Moviegoers came from as far away as Harrisburg to experience "Cinerama" movies in the 1950's and early 1960's. Movies in Cinerama needed 3 separate projection booths and, unlike other movies, couldn't be shown later in neighborhood or suburban theaters, so they were unique to the Boyd in our area.
Many other premieres and first-run movies were at the Boyd. People today don't know what it is like to experience a movie in one auditorium with more than a thousand other moviegoers, to visit palatial restroom suites, to wait in the elegant lobby. Future generations must be able to walk into the theater and know "so this is what it was like...."
2. Another reason to save the Boyd is its wonderful Art Deco elegance. The mural over the stage was painted by a very accomplished artist, Alfred Tulk. The other various decorations are gorgeous. After the Boyd is restored, it will be stunning, and like other historic monuments worldwide, people will be amazed when told how close it came to being demolished.
3. ... It is needed to bring more shows to Philadelphia, and for the economic impact it will have. As a 2400 seat theater, the Boyd will again present entertainment, and be an anchor for Chestnut Street revitalization. Many shows don't come to Philadelphia because there's no room. That will change when the Boyd reopens.
Your connection to the "Save the Boyd" project has been unwavering, and it's all on a volunteer basis. What do you do for a living, how much time does this project take from your schedule, and how is that you got got involved at the beginning?
I'm an attorney with my own law practice, primarily representing disabled individuals before the Social Security Administration. The intense volunteering I've done to lead our project didn't help my practice. I found I had to refocus on signing up more clients, but the volunteer work still cuts into my personal time.
When I moved into Center City in 1988, I found a demolition sticker on the front door of the Sameric, for the historic Boyd Theatre that formed most of the complex. (The 3 newer auditoriums aren't historic.) I couldn't believe that such a beautiful Art Deco movie palace could be subject to demolition! I then visited many American cities and saw how they had saved and restored movie palaces for live shows and other events. When the movie palace was again threatened in 2002, I knew I had to do something, and so we organized.
When you first started in with the crusade, what was your fondest wish for the theater?
When we started, the owner at that time had opposed historic designation. The movie theater had closed, and the owner was obtaining a demolition permit. So the very survival and reopening of the movie palace was our immediate goal.
And how close is that wish to what's actually going to happen with the Boyd?
Our first flyers proclaimed the theater should become one of "the city's performance venues for live theater, popular singers, etc" and suggested [it] could host movie premieres, film festivals and classic films.
That's exactly what will happen to the Boyd if the new owner, Live Nation, proceeds with their plans to restore and reopen the movie palace.
We have seen from our research and discoveries made at the Boyd that the restored Art Deco exterior and interior will be even more stunning than I could have imagined.
Why is the theater not considered some sort of 'protected monument'? You said previous owners actually lobbied against that designation?
Sometimes building owners see property as real estate rather than as historic treasures that are handed down from generation to generation. The Boyd was previously legally protected inside and outside, but a prior owner objected, and the state's highest court tossed the entire preservation law! Since then the court has allowed protection for exteriors of buildings, but Philadelphia needs to adapt a new law to protect our wonderful interiors.
The prior owner of the theater hired top counsel to fight the request to designate the Boyd's exterior. Friends of the Boyd have suggested ... another legal mechanism to protect buildings. Theater owner Live Nation can obtain much cash value towards the renovation by creating "easements."
Briefly take us through the process since you began your involvement with the Boyd. At first it pretty much looked like a lost cause, didn't it?
On June 11, 2002, I organized the Committee to Save the Sameric by gathering together community leaders, preservationists, film fans and the press. It is always an uphill battle to save a great historic landmark, and many movie palaces nationwide have been demolished, but it was a quest we had to undertake.
Each Saturday in 2002, we held "Saturday Afternoon Vigil" in front of the theater. We met with neighbors, gathered petition signatures, and discussed why the theater should be saved. We worked with other organizations, held free public forums with slide show lectures, and met with the Mayor. We hired business and architectural advisors for detailed plans. We formally incorporated and obtained nonprofit status as The Friends of the Boyd. The Friends of the Boyd have held many events, including tours of the closed Boyd and our Philadelphia-themed film event fundraising series at International House. The Boyd is not normally open for tours, but we hold other events.
So what would you call the "turning point," that pivotal moment where the theater went from "most likely dead" to "on life support and looking good"?
The turning point was when Mayor Street toured the theater in the summer of 2002, and answered reporters' questions that, yes, the Boyd should be saved. Of course, the current owner's purchase of the Boyd for purposes of restoration and reopening [it] has been critical.
Aside from the obvious goal -- bringing the Boyd back to something very close to its original glory -- what is it you hope the theater itself will accomplish?
Reopening the Boyd as a major anchor of Chestnut Street will return vitality to the street. Nighttime and weekend crowds of theatergoers will also ensure more restaurants [and] stores and increase hotel occupancy.
And how have the local residents responded to the new theater plan?
Many local residents are our volunteers and supporters! Some remember the Boyd in its glory years, and they look forward to its reopening.
Philadelphians who care about this project owe a lot of thanks to a company called Live Nation. Can you give us a recap of what they've done with similar theaters in other cities?
Live Nation and its predecessor corporations restored in recent years movie palaces in Baltimore, Boston and elsewhere, always to great acclaim in those cities.
And what's in their playbook for The Boyd?
The Boyd will be a showplace for touring Broadway musicals, concerts,and other entertainment. They are happy that Friends of the Boyd will present films (classics, film festivals, premieres), organ concerts (a digital organ), public tours and exhibits of the Boyd's long and wonderful history.
Recently, work by Live Nation at the Boyd has stalled. We are hoping [it] will resume soon, or another theater operator will take over. Nationwide, it has usually taken years to revive historic theaters. The Boyd is no exception, but once it is reopened, Philadelphia will reap the same benefits as many other cities: More shows for everybody to enjoy, more restaurants and more fun!
The multiplexes have pretty much taken over the world of film exhibition, much to the chagrin of we who love second-run theaters, drive-ins and "less-traditional" types of movie-watching. Do you think there's a chance that the pendulum could ever swing back the other way? Could "movie palaces" ever make any sort of comeback?
Movie palaces were invented because silent films needed: (1) an ornate building to attract enough customers; and (2) a huge auditorium to have enough customers to cover the costs of the live acts that were also needed to bring in [audiences]. Movie palaces survived talkies, but most movie palaces couldn't survive the invention of entertainment in the home called television. Movie palaces won't make a comeback for daily moviegoing, but like we plan for the Boyd, many ex-movie palaces [exhibit] classic films, film festivals and film premieres.
Fortunately, residents of the Philadelphia area can still watch movies in the main screen of the Bala (built as the Egyptian in 1927, designed by the same architects as the Boyd). Not movie palaces, but historic single-screen movie theaters still open include the Hiway in Jenkintown, the Colonial in Phoenixville, and the Newtown.
Muvico is a movie exhibitor that builds megaplexes with palatial grand lobbies. In Philadelphia, the Bridge isn't a palace, but is nicely decorated with wood and Japanese style ceiling lanterns.
I'm assuming that, in your younger days perhaps, you may have attended the Boyd/Sameric Theater (or perhaps a similar theater). Do you have many fond movie memories of the venue? Did you personal affection for the theater factor in to your involvement with the crusade?
Yes. Growing up, I attended several wonderful single screen theaters. I was horrified by 1970's multiplexes with small screening rooms instead of real auditoriums.
Will the Boyd ultimately be the kind of theater in which a locally-made film could have a big, swanky World Premiere?
In 1993, the World Premiere of Philadelphia was held at the Sameric (Boyd). Tom Hanks walked in and said "Oh, wow, a real movie theater." Hollywood-style movie premieres will again bring excitement and crowds to Chestnut Street. Until the early 1970's, movies had first run exclusive runs in Center City Philadelphia before migrating to neighborhood and suburban theaters. Many of those movies had local premieres at the Boyd. We recently were given photos from various of those premieres from the 1950's and 1960's by the son of a late Boyd manager. We hope more people will share their Boyd photos with us so we can add them to the theater's history.
Center City Philadelphia has a handful of really excellent theaters, venues in which live theater, concerts and films can play. How will the Boyd compare/compete with these theaters?
Many big touring Broadway musicals will only to go 2400-seat houses, because there isn't a profit otherwise. Only the Academy of Music has that many seats, and it can't accommodate musicals most of the year because its primary tenants are opera and ballet. So, many shows don't even come to Philadelphia! If people want to see them, they need consider a trip to New York City or somewhere else. As to concerts, it will be exciting to enjoy a popular concert and experience the Art Deco interior at the same time.
For movie premieres, classics and film festivals, there's no other movie palace in Philadelphia to experience them! Spotlights will shine on the Art Deco limestone exterior of the Boyd, actors and actresses will walk through grand lobbies and foyers, and people will know how movies were enjoyed for so many decades.
Do you expect the Boyd to be used as a venue for the Philadelphia Film Festivals?
The Boyd will be a perfect and elegant venue for Opening and Closing Nights of the Philadelphia Film Festivals.
How integral has the Friends of the Boyd website been?
Many people have found our cause through our website, and serve as volunteers, donate and help in other ways. On our website, we have many photos of the Boyd, and much on its history and current developments. We also email out a Weekly Update for free to anybody who enters their contact information.
Most fortunate for documenting the Boyd's history is that people with historic photos of the Boyd, or other artifacts, have shared them with us. We are eager for more photos of the Boyd from the past, and hope people reading this will contact us if they have them. Recently, a man whose father managed the Boyd provided photos of opening night celebrations of movies including Gigi and How the West was Won. We lack photos of many other movies at the Boyd, including Ben-Hur and Doctor Zhivago, to name two of the famous epic films whose presentations in Philadelphia began first at the Boyd.
Do you think you could have reached enough volunteers/helpers/contributors without the use of the internet?
Movie palaces nationwide including Radio City Music Hall and the Atlanta Fox, and other historic buildings such as Lit Bros in Philadelphia were saved before everybody was on the Internet. But, truthfully, sometimes it seems that it is so challenging to get things done in Philadelphia, that I'm not sure we would've had this success without the Net! The Internet made things easier, and quicker. Our website, and the multitudes of emails that we've sent out, have been critical. Friends of the Boyd welcome more volunteers, donors, historic Boyd photos and artifacts and people receiving free Weekly Update emails; visit www.FriendsOfTheBoyd.org.
So there you have it: The crown jewel of Philadelphia's classic old movie palaces has been saved, and all it took was five years, one dedicated man, a lot of hard work, and the varied contributions of untold hundreds. Needless to say, I cannot wait for the Boyd to swing its doors wide again. As I told Mr. Haas, I'll be overjoyed to see a movie at a theater like this ... any movie!