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!"?

Photo by Irvin R. Glazer.

Photo by Irvin R. Glazer.

It hosted the likes of Grace Kelly, Mario Lanza and Charlton Heston. But I’m guessing that no premiere at the Boyd Theatre—built in 1928 and later rechristened the SamEric 4—had quite the impact of Philadelphia. Jonathan Demme’s 1993 AIDS drama was the first movie shot entirely in the city in more than 60 years. Landing the production was a coup for the then-recently reinvigorated Greater Philadelphia Film Office. The drama of a black lawyer defending an HIV-positive white lawyer against discrimination redefined and reaffirmed the meaning of brotherly love.

I covered the premiere for the Inquirer and recall the excited squeals of 1,500 stargazers outside the Boyd as Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington emerged from one of the stretch limos that gridlocked Chestnut Street. Already inside were Demme, Mayor Rendell (who had a cameo), film-office mahoff Sharon Pinkenson, most of City Council, Jeremiah White Jr. of the Philadelphia AIDS Consortium and 900 others.

As the stars strolled through the Boyd’s narrow headhouse and into the expansive lobby of the tarnished Art Deco bijou, Washington exclaimed, “Holy cow!” as Hanks said, “Wow, a real movie theater!” Missing were the familiar scents of Lysol, popcorn and mold. Quite present were nearly 1,000 engaged filmgoers watching the movie on the city’s largest screen. For the first 100 minutes they held back tears, and during the final 10 they unleashed Niagara. There’s nothing like a big-screen film with a big audience. If movies are your religion, as they are mine, a theater like the Boyd is your place of worship.

Little did I know that night that the Boyd, like Hanks’s lawyer in Philadelphia, was about to become a terminal case. In the era of the multiplex, the single-screen theater was a white elephant. “A dinosaur,” the spokesman for United Artists, its owner, pronounced it in 1995.

Still, other cities managed to save a historic theater or two. And given Pinkenson’s “Committee to Save the Boyd,” formed in 1995 to preserve the building later listed in the city’s historic register, I believed the dowager of Chestnut Street, Philadelphia’s last surviving movie palace, would be revived. But she’s been in a vegetative state since 2002.

That year, the Boyd was shuttered and slated for demolition. Then, like the damsel in a silent-movie serial, at the 11th hour she was saved from the wrecking ball. This was due largely to the efforts of Howard Haas, a Center City lawyer and lover of historic theaters who organized “Friends of the Boyd” and petitioned Mayor Street to spare her.

Since then, as the Boyd slouched towards her 85th birthday, she’s been seduced and abandoned by serial suitors. Proposals for her restoration—first in 2005 as a stage theater, then in 2007 as a House of Blues, then in 2008 as a multipurpose venue in a Kimpton Hotel complex—went unconsummated. In 2008 the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the theater on its “11 Most Endangered Historic Places” list.

Now a white knight wants to rescue the white elephant at 1908 Chestnut: Hamid Hashemi, 53, the Iranian-born and Boca Raton-based CEO of iPic Entertainment. That’s good, right? Pinkenson thinks so, but Haas is firmly opposed, and I’m losing my religion.

Hashemi proposes to restore the Boyd’s facade, marquee and headhouse to their 1928 glory while rebuilding the auditorium into an eight-screen bistroplex offering food and cocktails during screenings and/or fine dining in an in-house restaurant after the show. “Movie eateries,” as they’re known, are the latest strategy to lure people away from their flat-screens and back into theaters.

He needs approval from the Historical Commission to make exterior alterations to the building. These include the proposed demolition of the auditorium, the restoration of the headhouse on Chestnut Street, and construction of the new building holding the theaters. In September iPic filed a financial hardship application stating that a full restoration of the theater—in contrast to the partial one it proposes—“would make it prohibitive to generate revenue to pay the debt service,” according to the company’s counsel, Paul Safran.

I pore over the plans from Philadelphia’s spg3 architects. Partner Richard Gelber was on the team that designed the Rave in West Philadelphia. When he was with Cope Linder, he was one of the architects who designed the Ritz in Voorhees. These are the best movie houses in the region, with ideal sightlines, proportions and seating.

This prompts an internal showdown. The preservationist in me asks: Can we really afford to lose the city’s last movie palace, witness to so much cultural and civic history? The pragmatist retorts: Isn’t it about time that Center City—like South, West and North Philadelphia—had a venue for mainstream Hollywood fare?

Yes and yes.

As a journalist on the record about the importance of saving historic theaters, I feel hypocritical. Yet as I look at the plans, I see an elegant compromise between preserving the past and serving the needs of the present.

Not everyone else does. A straw poll of Boyd lovers past and present suggests that this month, when the commission is expected to entertain iPic’s application, will be like High Noon, with the preservationists facing off against the pragmatists.