‘One of the last theaters from Hollywood’s Golden Age’: Lansdowne Theater eyes a 2023 return

A Delaware County Council grant and a federal earmark co-introduced by Sen. Bob Casey and Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon have boosted revival efforts.

The historic Lansdowne Theater. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The historic Lansdowne Theater. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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The Lansdowne Theater, a product of the Roaring ’20s, was once a regional hub for the arts. It has been out of commission since 1987, though, due to an electrical fire and changing movie viewing habits.

Now, a $2 million grant from Delaware County Council and a $1.5 million federal earmark co-introduced by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon have boosted efforts to restore and revive the theater — possibly leading to a much-anticipated grand reopening in 2023.

“Restoring this local jewel will help breathe new life into the surrounding community and attract more arts, culture, and businesses to the area. I could not be more excited to see the renovation kick off later this year, and I look forward to being one of the theater’s frequent patrons once the project is complete,” Scanlon said in a statement.

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Historic Lansdowne Theater Corp., or HLTC, the nonprofit behind the revitalization efforts, has been pushing toward this goal since it bought the building in 2007 with the help of a grant from the state.

Matt Schultz, executive director of the nonprofit, told WHYY News that the “community has always wanted the theater to return to a place of public entertainment” — it was just a matter of how.

Matt Schultz is executive director of the Historic Lansdowne Theater Corporation. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Next came a willing partner in BRE Presents, a music promotion company that came to the organization looking to lease a venue for concerts.

Over the years, HLTC has done some of the needed renovations. Damaged old seats were removed. The ticket booth and marquee were restored. In January, remediation of asbestos in the building was completed.

There will no longer be a screen in the building, however, nor will there be digital projectors. Though the nonprofit is proud of the Lansdowne Theater’s roots in the silent film era, the rise and fall of video stores like Blockbuster and the constantly changing habits of cinema consumers have led HLTC to a new model.

“Our goal from a design standpoint is to convert the building from a single-screen movie theater to a regional concert venue, featuring internationally and nationally known adult alternative and singer-songwriters here, but we want the building to look like it did in the late 1920s, early 1930s,” Schultz said.

The ornate painted ceiling and chandelier at the Historic Landsdowne Theater. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Throughout the process, the nonprofit has kept its eyes glued to the $16.5 million fundraising goal — a number it will soon reach.

“We’re one of the last theaters from Hollywood’s Golden Age that have not been demolished, turned into funeral homes, turned into drugstores, into storage units. The community’s longtime battle, since when it closed in the 1980s, has been won,” Schultz said.

Once HLTC hits the magic number, an estimated 12-month construction period will begin, consisting of mostly interior work, roof work, and a building addition, as well as final touches to the structure’s exterior.

If all goes to plan, the theater would open during summer 2023.

Schultz said partners at the state, county, and local levels have been integral to the project. He added that multiple iterations of the Delaware County Council have supported the process for over a decade.

Because of that, Schultz said, HLTC is “hypersensitive to keeping as much money” in Lansdowne and the surrounding areas of Delaware County as possible, pointing to the use of all Delco-based contractors.

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The nonprofit plans to retain ownership.

“And the reason that we’re doing that is we don’t ever want to lose local ownership of the building again, because previous owners let it fall into disrepair for lots of different reasons. And we don’t want that to happen. So the nonprofit will stand for forever,” Schultz said.

County Council member Elaine Schaefer told WHYY News that HLTC leadership came to the council with the idea of using $2 million in American Rescue Plan Act money to help fund the restoration project — an idea she said she fully supported.

“Because in my mind … this is really a perfect illustration of what that money is for on the economic redevelopment and rejuvenation side of that money — really giving a kick-start to the economy to get us back in gear,” Schaefer said.

And while she’s ecstatic about the jobs the theater could bring to the area in the short term, Schaefer said she’s thinking of the big picture as well. She described it as the “ripple effect.”

“In the coming years, the people that come to that venue to see shows and go to events are going to go up there and they are going to discover the wonderful new restaurants in Lansdowne and the nearby towns,” Schaefer said.

Lansdowne Theater expects to attract 100,00 patrons annually when it reopens.

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