A New Life for the Old Boyd Theatre

An entertainment entrepreneur wants to transform Center City's most storied cinema into a modern movie eatery. So why are some people yelling "Cut!"?

When the Boyd opened on Christmas Day 1928, the Art Deco gem lit up Chestnut Street with its marquee of changing rainbow colors. Moviegoers walked through the carved-limestone exterior down a narrow headhouse into the lobby’s dazzling explosion of color and space. In the auditorium, the proscenium gleamed with a mural depicting the history of women’s progress, from Amazon Queen to Miss America. The theater’s 30-foot-high screen was one of the grandest in the city. The last five rows of the orchestra level were reserved, furnished with sumptuously upholstered armchairs fit for a chic Parisian townhouse.

Through the years, the movie palace drew Hollywood royalty and local political protesters. Soprano Jeanette MacDonald (a graduate of West Philadelphia High) came to see herself in The Merry Widow in 1934. Tenor Mario Lanza (born in South Philadelphia) visited for the world premiere of his feature debut, That Midnight Kiss, in 1949. Future princess Grace Kelly (pride of East Falls) walked the red carpet for the premiere of High Noon in 1952. The Boyd was retrofitted as a Cinerama screen in 1953; neo-Nazis sparked a riot at the 1960 premiere of Exodus; and the venue had a brief affair with porn in the early 1970s. In 1971 it was refurbished and rechristened the SamEric by new owner Sam Shapiro. Every Philadelphian of a certain age saw Star Wars there in 1977. Gay-rights activists protested the 1980 run of Cruising.

By the time I moved to Philadelphia in 1986, the Boyd looked like its future was behind it. Its walls appeared to be painted with dime-store nail polish. Still, like a trouper decades past her prime, the theater had the charm and danger of urban decay.

The low point of my Boyd experience was the night in 1988 when my pal Stuart and I were there for My Stepmother Is an Alien. As Kim Basinger (the alien) vamped Dan Aykroyd on-screen, a moviegoer behind us fired his handgun. In crouch mode, Stuart and I ducked out of the theater.

The high points were in 1993. One afternoon, Robert Townsend premiered The Meteor Man for a crowd of mostly public-school students, who loved his movie about a black superhero. They were thrilled that Townsend was in the house. Dazzled by the building, the fifth-grader in front of me asked, “Is this some kind of church?”

For Friends of the Boyd founder Haas, 53, the answer is yes. Here is a guy who flew to Seattle in September for the 70mm Film Festival at the Cinerama, a mid-century theater preserved by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen. Haas is wiry, with the heart of a cinephile and the gut of an advocate. (He represents people with disabilities applying for Social Security.)

Even before we sit down for lunch at the South Broad Street restaurant Bliss, he says, “Of course Center City deserves movie theaters. But Philadelphia deserves a restored Boyd. iPic should build elsewhere.” The 11 years the Boyd has been mothballed isn’t that long in restoration time, Haas says: “Look at Loew’s Kings in Brooklyn. It’s been shuttered since 1977 and is now undergoing a $70 million restoration.” That project is being co-financed by the city of New York and Houston-based ACE Theatrical Group.

“The world of cinema has changed,” counters Pinkenson, the indefatigable and ubiquitous advocate for film in the region. She remembers putting on her best dress and party shoes to see South Pacific at the Boyd when she was a girl. “The economics of a 2,350-seat theater for movies is obsolete. I’m thrilled that iPic will create an outstanding venue for Philadelphia’s avid and underserved film-lovers while restoring the historic facade and marquee. This is a win-win.”

Backing any sort of rebirth are many of the theater’s passersby and nearby business owners, like Michael DiPalma, proprietor of the Thunder Hair Salon on 19th Street. To him, the boarded-up Boyd is a blight, not to mention an impediment to development.

Haas would like to see the Boyd as a performing-arts center. That would put it in competition with the Prince (which opened in 1999) and the Kimmel Center (2001), respectively restored and constructed while the Boyd was in its last days. According to estimates from Econsult Solutions, restoring the Boyd as a live-music venue would cost $43 million; as a stage theater, $44 million. (Matthew McClure, a Ballard Spahr attorney representing iPic, didn’t disclose how much his client is spending on the project.)

Another consideration for the Historical Commission is the Boyd’s architectural significance. In a city with dwindling examples of Art Deco buildings, is there an argument for saving the interior as well as its exterior? “There’s no other building in the city like it,” John Gallery, retired director of the Preservation Alliance, has maintained for years. Maybe so, but George Thomas begs to differ. The Penn architectural historian and co-director of the critical conservation graduate program at Harvard says, “It’s not a great Deco building. It wouldn’t even make my list of the 50 top properties worth restoring in Philadelphia.”