This is part of ongoing coverage in “District 172: The Politics of Change after State Rep. John Perzel,” a collaborative effort with Philadelphia Neighborhoods funded by J-Lab.
Mayfair’s Devon Theater for the Performing Arts may be closed, but plans for its future are still alive, according to some locals who are working to reopen the theater.
The performing arts center, which replaced the original Devon Theater movie house, on Frankford Avenue and Sterling Street, was open for fewer than two years before succumbing to financial troubles in December 2010. The newly renovated playhouse’s grand opening in March 2009 was the product of a multimillion dollar restoration, pioneered by the Mayfair Community Development Corporation,who bought the theater in 2004.
Ben Cardonick, founder of savethedevon.org, said the theater was struggling financially largely due to state budget cuts. Seth Kaplan, chief of staff for 172nd District State Rep. Kevin Boyle, said the Devon ultimately closed due to its inability to produce enough money- not because of budget cuts. Kaplan said although the Devon was not directly state funded, the Mayfair CDC does receive grants from the state, which could have been used to help the theater. He wasn’t aware, however,of any grant money going toward the funding of the Devon. A large part of the Devon’s problems stemmed from its inability to book enough big name entertainers and shows, Kaplan said. In the short time it was opened, the Devon Theater for the Performing Arts showed “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat,” “Nunsense,” “Little Shop of Horrors” and “The OddCouple.” Kaplan said these sporadic performances were not enough.
“The upkeep to a theater is expensive and if you’re not bringing in enough money, it’s gonna have to shut down,” he said. “[The Theater] was starting to take losses so it had to close.”
When the new performing arts center opened on March 27, 2009, it boasted a “65’X35’proscenium stage, 400 plush seats, a special VIP seating mezzanine, concession bar, event loft,dressing rooms, showers, handicap accessibility and the most up-to-date, state-of-the-art sound,lighting and digital projection systems in the entire city,” according to the Devon Theater’s Facebook page.
Both Kaplan and Cardonick would like to see the performing arts center reopen in the future. Cardonick started savethedevon.org with the intention of raising awareness and funds for the theater, which he said he feels is a vital part of the Mayfair community.
“It can be the focal point and justification for major renovation projects, [which] can contribute to more money being allocated to our neighborhood,” Cardonick said. “Ultimately, it will bring more business and jobs into the neighborhood, as well as making it a more attractive housing market, raising property values.”
In addition to shows and plays at the performing arts center, Cardonick said he would would like to see the Devon host independent and classic movies, children’s theater, shows for local schools that lack an auditorium and theater classes.
“Another important goal would be to rent out the remaining store fronts,” Cardonicksaid. “One is already occupied by State Farm Insurance. The rent collected would help pay for the insurance and operating costs.” Cardonick said he wants the theater to be a community-operated, non-profit with members of the community acting as an advisory board.
Right now, Kaplan said Boyle just wants to see a good tenant occupy the building and keep it as a theater. He is currently working with the bank that owns the building to accomplish this, Kaplan said.
The recent shuttering of the Devon is just one of many problems the theater has faced since itfirst opened in 1946. The original Devon was a busy 800-seat movie theater and a favorite among locals. But over the next two decades, multi-screen theaters slowly rendered the single-screen Devon obsolete, and in the late 1960s, the struggling theater became an adult movie house.
Ed Lloyd, owner of Lloyd Sixsmith sporting goods, who’s worked on Frankford Avenue for 33years, remembers when the Devon was an eyesore in the community.
“I watched it develop and undevelop,” Lloyd said of the theater, which in 1978, finally began airing regular films again. The theater may not have been the most modern in the area, but it hung on for a long time, Lloyd said. “The seats were worn out, the floor was sticky, but it had a decent following.” Lloyd and his wife were sad to see the theater close. They had actually bought a full season ofplay tickets, but due to the closure, never got to see all of the shows.
Antoniette Montgomery, owner of Torresdale Flowers on Frankford Avenue, who’s lived in the neighborhood for 20 years, was also disappointed with the closure.
“The Devon I thought was a great idea when they changed it into the plays and things like that,”she said. “It’s a shame it had to stop. They were decent plays. It was just…an inexpensive night out.”
Saleem Ahmed and Jennifer Klimowicz are students reporting for Philadelphia Neighborhoods, a publication of Temple University’s Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab.