By Christopher Wink
The Devon hasn’t gotten this much attention in generations. Perhaps neither has Mayfair.
But now that the Frankford Avenue institution has made the long transition back to prominence, opening this weekend as the Devon Center for Performing Arts. It will mark another measure in the long transition from 1946 first-run movie theater to adult-film movieplex in the 1970s to second-run theater and to abandoned eyesore.
After a gala and private screening on Friday, with a possible appearance by Mayor Michael Nutter, the Devon opens on Saturday with a sold-out performance of Nunsense, a musical comedy.
“We’re in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood,” said Michael Pickering, the Devon’s artistic director. “Nunsense was a no-brainer.”
But don’t be fooled by the Devon’s location, far from the glitz of Center City’s Avenue of the Arts or the established arts scene of Old City. The Northeast is about to get its first professional performing arts center, by way of a decidedly working-class neighborhood.
The Devon is an all-union house, including its paid, professional actors, some from Philadelphia’s growing dramatic community. Still, its long-term strategy for success in the Northeast is heavy on community.
Read more, see video and other photos after the jump.
In 2002, the Mayfair CDC commissioned a study focused on transforming the Frankford Avenue corridor. Creating a recreation center was first, and offering opportunities in the arts was another. The first was satisfied by the John Perzel Community Center, which opened in May 2006. The Devon is the next, and likely, the largest measure.
In Aug. 2004, the CDC, which has maintained ownership, bought the Devon for $800,000. They saw promise in the Devon, with its 65-year-old roof, severe water damage, termite-infestation, collapse and decay.
“It was like a horror movie,” Amy Pickering said of the inside of the Devon when she first saw it last year.
The major reconstruction of the theater cost $4 million. Renovation of the six adjacent storefronts cost an additional $2 million, totaling $6 million toward reconstituting the Devon. The money came from state, city, federal and private dollars, in addition to a sizable grant from Devon sponsor Beneficial, according to the Inquirer.
Even the noted Devon marquee was remade. Indeed, other than the ticket booth, nothing is existing.
“Except the name,” said General Manager Mike Lally, a 1997 graduate of Father Judge.
The stage is 34 feet wide and 30 feet deep, growing from the 10 feet it once was to support its big movie screen. But that’s hardly the biggest change from the Devon’s old theater days. There are now 400 seats, not including the 18 tucked in a balcony in the very back of the theater. That’s a lot less than the 724 18-inch seats that once crowded the Devon. The new seats even have cup holders.
“We have folks who think all we did was sweep the floors and paint the walls,” said Amy Pickering. “Then they come in and, ‘wow.” Below, take a brief sneak peek inside the Devon, courtesy of NEastPhilly.com.
The Devon also now features a top-of-the-line sound system.
“I challenge you to find a hole with this sound system,” said Stephen McEnlee, who helped with construction of the theater’s sound. He said it was as good, if not better, than any in the region.
The theater will have a a five-show season, beginning with Nunsense this weekend, most of which will likely run three to four weeks. Three of the shows will likely be musicals. The Devon will also host special holiday events, including one for New Year’s Eve, Pickering said. Tickets are between $25 and $35 without any of the possible discounts.
Others in the Philadelphia theater community are watching closely.
“I hope it succeeds so there are more places we can go, because space is at a premium. There’s nowhere for people to go to perform. Successful theaters would be a great benefit to the city and to the entire state economy,” said Karen DiLossi, the director of programs and services for the Theater Alliance of Philadelphia. “They don’t have to be in Center City.”
She said the success of the Devon could speak worlds about the future of Philadelphia’s recently resurgent theater community.
“I say it again and again: this is professional theater in a community” said Michael Pickering, the Devon’s artistic director and Amy’s husband. “And we’re happy to be in this community.”
Those involved say while their location may seem prohibitive to attract an audience outside the Northeast, they have every intention of drawing viewers from within at least a 15-mile radius. That would include Center City, which is accessible from the Devon via the Market-Frankford El and a short 10-minute walk up Frankford Avenue.
Their plan for profit also involved diversifying its theater-use, hoping to utilize three focuses: serving as a rental facility for concerts and events, serving as a production organization to put on theatrical performances and as a presentation house to host outside performances that they will manage. Still, while they need to attract outsiders, their most ardent supporters, if only to begin, are those living in Mayfair and elsewhere in the Northeast.
“I’m just thrilled this has been done here,” said Kathleen Murray. “We really need something like this in the Northeast.”
The 76-year-old has lived in Mayfair for 35 years. After buying tickets for Nunsense, she offered to help with concessions, ushering or anything else. Michael Pickering said she is just one of hundreds who have done the same. Many for the same reason, he said.
“I’ve seen the Devon at its worst,” Murray, an active hospice volunteer, said. “I want to see the theater now that it’s alive again.”
Others in Mayfair do, too.
Like Joe Mallamaci, the owner of famed Tony’s Place, located right across Frankford Avenue from the theater.
“The Devon is going to be a cultural event for the Northeast,” said Mallamaci, who took over Tony’s from his father and uncle in 1976. “People will come back. It will be good for a high school to have their graduations at the Devon. Stay in the neighborhood. This is going to be great for Mayfair.”
That’s what Amy Pickering says. She’s charged with an education component to the Devon and that much is catering to the Northeast. She hopes to develop Saturday readings for children, acting classes and community group meetings. In the summer, she will be leading a two-week summer theater camp, held in conjunction with the John Perzel Community Center.
“We need the community to support us, which is fine,” Amy Pickering says, “because we want to work with them.”