At 52nd and Locust in West Philadelphia, there’s a beautiful old vaudeville house, built in 1909, that is a model example of what happens when a vacant building gets adapted by the best person for the job — a person who really cares.
Bushfire Theatre founder and executive director Al Simpkins rescued the building from dilapidation in the early 1980s, when 52nd Street was losing its glow as an active commercial corridor and well after the originally named Locust Theater had stopped showing movies. When he bought the building, writes Nicole Contosta of UC Review, “others looked at him with disbelief.”
“But I wanted to open a theater that had ties to the African American community,” Simpkins said. At one point, Simpkins tried to purchase the renowned Royal Theater on the 1500 block of South Street. “But I didn’t have enough money when it came up for the Sheriff’s Sale,” Simpkins said, adding, “Michael Singer purchased it instead.”
Royal’s loss is 52nd Street’s gain. The theater now has 428 seats, and Bushfire also acquired three adjacent abandoned buildings. The whole complex provides support for Bushfire’s various projects: the 52nd Street Writer’s Workshop, the Langston Hughes Playwrights Workshop at Lincoln University, jazz performance, children’s workshops (including puppet theater), and, of course, productions by the professional theater company itself.
That’s 35 years of very successful adaptive reuse.
In honor of that long commitment to the neighborhood and to African-American arts, Bill Cosby will host a fundraiser for Bushfire at Temple on October 17. Hopefully, the historically designated building will get a little TLC from whatever the fundraiser generates. The exterior has a bit of wear after all these years, and it’s still a real beauty.