Vocal turnout for Boyd Theatre rally

Councilman Bill Green waves his bill that would protect the interiors of historic buildings

May 22

By Matt Blanchard
For PlanPhilly

Preservationists, politicians and trade unionists staged a passionate rally to save the Boyd Theater on Thursday, as the long-threatened 1928 Art Deco movie palace – Center City’s last – is once again up for sale.

Should the new owners attempt demolition – shockingly the city has refused to grant the Boyd historic protection – Philadelphia would be embarrassingly alone among major cities in failing to preserve even one of its grand movie palaces, organizers said.

“This rally today is all about sounding the alarm bell,” preservationist Adrian Fine told the crowd at 19th and Chestnut. “It’s a call to all Philadelphians who care about the Boyd to step up and save this place. Now more than ever the Boyd is endangered and at risk.”

The rally comes two days after the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Boyd one of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in the United States. It’s a tragic but potentially powerful distinction, raising up the Boyd as a national priority along with sites like flood-ravaged New Orleans and the neglected California State Parks system.

Buyers to make bids next week

The rally also comes as Live Nation, the Clear Channel subsidiary that once pledged to restore the Boyd as a music venue, is busy making a sale. Beverley Hills-based Live Nation has invited at least seven potential buyers to submit bids by this coming Wednesday. The identity of these potential buyers, while still secret, is critical to the Boyd’s chances.

“Some that are seeking to buy the Boyd would demolish it; others would gut the theater,” said Howard Haas, president of Friends of the Boyd. Other potential buyers, Haas said, might do “some level of restoration.” Haas declined to name the parties involved.

But other sources familiar with the potential buyers said at least two of them – should they make a bid – seem likely to continue with Live Nation’s original plan for a full restoration and the expansion of the theater’s stage house to accommodate major acts. Another optimistic sign is that Live Nation reportedly asked for bids in the $7 million range, a relatively low number which could indicate an assumption that the Boyd will remain a theater, and will need a lot of work.

A Missing Link?

If it does survive, union officials argue the Boyd could fill a key niche among Center City entertainment venues.  With 2,350 seats, the Boyd’s ornate and stylish main hall could bring in first rate Broadway shows that today bypass Philadelphia.

“We’ve had to wait ten years for the Lion King … and other first-rate Broadway shows for one reason and one reason only: We do not have a theater that meets the 2,000-seat threshold,” said Michael Barnes of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. “With the Boyd, we could meet that threshold.”

Demolition now, after 80 years, would also be a painful irony. The Boyd limped through long decades as Chestnut Street hit rock bottom (the Boyd did a turn as a porn theater). Now Chestnut is bouncing back with new shops, bars and expensive apartment renovations. It’s part of a wider revival of Center City that’s based – and here’s the irony – on the area’s stock of historic buildings like the Boyd.

“It makes no sense!” cried State Rep. Babette Josephs. “If you’re ever going to see anybody eating their own children, this is it! This is it!”

Councilman Green steps up

The surprise of the day came as freshman City Councilman Bill Green took the mike to announce that one hour earlier, he had introduced legislation that could save structures like the Boyd.

Waving the legislation over his head, Green said it would empower the city Historical Commission to designate interior spaces to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

Right now, the city’s historic preservation ordinance only empowers the Historical Commission to protect exteriors, a limitation enforced by a state Supreme Court ruling about the Boyd back in 1993.

Green said his bill would correct that, giving the Historical Commission purview over historic interior spaces that were “customarily open or accessible to the public by invitation or otherwise.” Such authority is normal practice in New York and Washington DC, Green said.

Crafting a deal

But Green’s bill seems unlikely to pass before Live Nation secures a buyer. And there’s always a chance the effort could backfire, scaring the Boyd’s owners into rushing to acquire a demolition permit before the bill takes effect.

That’s probably why several speakers at Thursday’s rally seemed to recognize that saving the Boyd, like so much else in Philadelphia, would require someone in power to craft a deal. Since the Boyd is likely to require some amount of public funding to get back on its feet, repeated pleas were made to Governor Rendell, Mayor Nutter and major philanthropic donors to “step up.”

Howard Haas of Friends of the Boyd made the plea with especial force. And then for good measure, he made it again:

“I’m going to repeat that, and I’m going to be specific,” Haas said. “We need Mayor Nutter, we need Governor Rendell and we need major donors to help.”

Contact the reporter at blanchard.matt@gmail.com

Inga Saffron column on the Boyd

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