Philly’s palatial Boyd Theatre faces sequel as eight small cinemas

The Florida-based company iPic Theaters has plans for the dilapidated Boyd Theatre on Chestnut Street in Center City Philadelphia.

It wants to turn the Art Deco movie palace built in 1928, which some still remember as the Sam Eric, into eight luxury cinemas.

The historic facade would be restored, along with the lobby headhouse. But the plans calls for destroying the Boyd’s auditorium to make way for construction of a restaurant, bar, and eight small, state-of-the-art cinemas featuring reclining chairs, drink service — even pillows and blankets

This kind of theater does not exist in Philadelphia and iPic CEO Hamid Hashemi says Center City needs it.

“The last [downtown] theater was built in the ’60s. It was the Ritz, I think,” said Hashemi during a stop in Philadelphia to present his plans. “Since then, you haven’t had a good, modern multiplex in this town. It’s the only downtown in this country that does not have a modern-day movie theater.”

But the iPic plan is getting push back from some of the city’s preservationists who say the Boyd should be restored to its original condition to stay on par with other major cities.

“Every city in the U.S. has restored at least one or more historic downtown movie palaces,” said Howard Haas of the Friends of the Boyd.

The art deco Boyd Theatre once held grand premieres: Grace Kelly arrived for the opening of her film “High Noon” in 1952; Tom Hanks was there to launch “Philadelphia” in 1993.

It was shuttered 12 years ago. In spite of several efforts to develop a viable performance venue, it has been crumbling ever since. City Councilman Bill Green even pushed through a law that would allow the Boyd’s interior to be eligible for historical designation, so it would have to be preserved. But no one ever filed to get that designation.

Still, preservationists do not want to see the Boyd carved up into a multiplex.

Hashemi, who said he needs the height and width of the Boyd auditorium to accommodate his movie theaters, said his plan calls for tearing down that auditorium and building it back from scratch.

“This would essentially be vacant land that they would build on. It doesn’t make sense,” said Haas. “They should build elsewhere and not pick on the last movie palace in Center City.”

The iPic plan would reduce the Boyd’s seating capacity by a third: the 2,300-seat auditorium would be replaced with eight smaller theaters with a total of 740 seats, ranging from $12 to $24. The company has built its restaurant, bar, and movie theater concept in nine other markets around the country, with another dozen in development.

“These are people who have disposable income. And they spend it,” said Hashemi, who helped usher in the age of the megaplex in the 1990s. “They are going out for a night out. They are out there to spend and everyone around us benefits from it.”

The iPic plan will go before the city Historical Commission on Dec. 19. The Friends of the Boyd will oppose it.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.