A New Life for the Old Boyd Theatre

By ·

Photo by Irvin R. Glazer.[1]

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.

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.”

In October I meet with Hashemi, terse and soft-spoken, and Safran, his talkative counsel, in the lobby of the Hotel Palomar. They show me the architect’s renderings and talk about the CEO and his company. On the eve of the revolution in December 1978, Hashemi left Iran for America. In 1984, he invested in his first movie theater, which became the basis of the Muvico chain, with some theaters retro in design but all forward-looking in amenities like gourmet food and child care. He parted ways with the company in 2006.

Muvico built mall-variety multiplexes. iPic, which has 69 screens in nine locations including Austin, Boca Raton and Pasadena, creates upmarket urban bistroplexes. Hashemi proposes to replace the Boyd auditorium with a cluster of eight posh screening rooms adjacent to a fine-dining restaurant and chef-operated concession kiosks. The largest auditorium, with a screen 28 feet high and 60 feet wide (that’s big, folks), would seat no more than 120. Like the other seven, it would be lined with swank leather club chairs. Hashemi is selling “the big-screen experience in an intimate environment.” Plus food and drink. All eight theaters combined would seat around 800.

iPic has a two-tier admissions rate, but all tickets would cost more than the Philadelphia average of $11; general admission would be $14 for non-members and $12 for members. Membership is free, as is popcorn for premium patrons. With general admission, you buy your food at the kiosk and bus it yourself. Premium Plus tickets range from $18 to $24 and get you a prime seat in the back rows, a pillow and blanket, and a call button to get food delivered to your seat. A glass of wine and a salad costs $18 to $20 at iPic locations; other in-theater offerings include fajitas, quesadillas and satay. Entrées at the restaurant are in the $20-to-$35 range. The movie menu? Mainstream, with the occasional specialized film such as The King’s Speech or Lee Daniels’ The Butler. There will be no reduced rates for children. On weekends, he plans breakfast screenings for seniors.

The most appealing part of the plan is the rendering of the restored limestone facade and moderne stained-glass marquee. In the headhouse, Hashemi plans to showcase architectural artifacts from the auditorium. Anticipating criticism of his plan, he says simply, “We’re restoring its historic function, but in a modern way.”

If the project is approved and realized—iPic’s goal is to open doors in the summer of 2015—Center City residents who want to see a wide-release film will no longer have to travel up to the Pearl, down to the Riverview Plaza or across the Schuylkill to the Rave in West Philly. I’m guessing preservationists will charge iPic with “facade-omy,” the practice of preserving a building’s face and gutting its interior. But given the choice of the only movie palace in Center City that’s shuttered and the only theater in Center City that’s open and showing mainstream films, I’ll take the latter.

As one intrigued by the symbolism of movie theater architecture, I think about what Hashemi’s plan tells us about consumer desire. In the 1920s, we watched movies in film palaces, humbled to be in the presence of screen royalty. In the 1970s, we watched in shopping-mall multiplexes, with a film to fit every size and taste. iPic predicts that we will watch in an exclusive lounge, with food and beverage service.

I love movies in part for the mass experience. Hashemi is betting that filmgoers of the future won’t want to sit in coach—they’ll prefer to fly first-class.

  1. [Image]: https://www.phillymag.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/boyds.jpg

Source URL: https://www.phillymag.com/news/2013/11/22/new-life-old-boyd-theatre/