Requiem for the Boyd / Alas, Poor Theater (from the Archives)

Boyd Then and Now
T
he Boyd — then and now

As I write this, demolition is underway at Philadelphia’s Boyd Theatre.  Opened in 1928, it was once Philly’s largest movie palace, but when it closed in 2002, it was a mere shadow of itself.  A team of people (called the Friends of the Boyd — Howard B. Haas is its President), led a heroic effort to save it.  But though there may be some continuing legal skirmishes, it’s now clear the Boyd has been acquired by Live Nation, who will substantively gut the building.  (That they’re doing this in order to put up a new film theater is only one of many ironies in this story.)

LINK: Philadelphia Inquirer reports on the Boyd Theatre

Though I never want to see old theaters destroyed, I have to admit it’s a complicated issue.  The Boyd had fallen into substantial disrepair, and I wasn’t ever convinced that the Friends of the Boyd — for all their energy and good will — could really get the place operational again.  Live Nation, an experienced theater presenter with deep pockets, probably can do that, and the plan they presented for a luxury multiplex, is a good idea — Philly, astonishingly for a city this size, has few downtown movie theaters, and the presence of a new one will help support other local businesses.

Still, the cost is heartbreakingly high.

I’m keenly interested in theaters — their pasts and futures — and in August 2008, I wrote a cover story for City Paper on the subject.  When I heard the news about the Boyd, I remembered that I had interviewed Howard Haas for that piece, which you’ll find below.  So much has changed in the five years since I wrote it.  It’s not all bad news — in fact, I rewrote the section on the Walnut Street Theatre, because they’ve done some extraordinary things to showcase their history.  But it’s painful for me to reread the section on the Boyd — there was such a sense of energy and hope.

Now the story will have a different ending, and I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

_______________________________________

Alas, Poor Theatre (Philadelphia City Paper, 6 August 2008)
The local scene is thriving, so why are our grand old stages left waiting in the wings?

In October 1960, Eliot Elisofon of Life magazine photographed actress Gloria Swanson in the ruins of New York’s Roxy Theatre, the legendary movie house that had just been demolished. Swanson poses in the foreground, gowned in black, her arms extended Norma Desmond-like; behind her we can barely make out what once were balconies.   This heartbreaking image sums up the beginning of an end.  Theaters built decades earlier now required conservancy that was too expensive — and the real estate was more valuable.  One by one, movie palaces fell.  So did some of Broadway’s live theaters, challenged additionally by the double-whammy threat of movies and TV.   (Theater lore claims Elisofon’s shot inspired Stephen Sondheim’s monumental elegy Follies.)

FOLLIES -- Gloria Swanson Roxy Theatre (color)
G
loria Swanson in the ruins of the Roxy Theatre

Philadelphia lost many of its theaters, too — the Erlanger, the Allegheny, the Playhouse in Fairmount Park, and dozens of others. Happily, though, a number of our grand old houses survived turbulent times. The Walnut Street, the Merriam, the Forrest, and Plays and Players are still operational. Others, like the Boyd, are closed but intact. More good news: Philly’s local theater scene is thriving.  The Arden, Philadelphia Theater Company and Wilma have done so well in recent years that they’ve built their own playhouses.  Dozens of smaller companies present good work in intimate rented spaces.

And there’s the rub.   Our local companies can’t use our grand old theaters.  For various reasons, they’re not suitable venues.  Some of these old theaters are more at risk than ever. And the tradition of pre-Broadway tryouts and tours that once kept them booked on a regular basis has dwindled. Ironically, the city is worse off because we have so many great old theaters — we might sustain one or two, but what do we do with a dozen?

Compounding it all is the addition of the Kimmel Center, our ballyhooed, state of the art concert hall.  It’s not a venue for theater tours.  But when the Philadelphia Orchestra moved there, it freed up the Academy of Music.  With a seating capacity of nearly 2,900 — far larger than the Broadway standard — the Academy is less appropriate for many shows than the Forrest or the Merriam  But it has name recognition and the visibility of a Broad Street location, and is currently the venue of choice for most of the major tours that come through Philly.

Yet how can we afford to be without any of them, these living museums of America’s cultural history?  Here are just a few of the plays and musicals that had their world premières in Philadelphia.  The Walnut Street had at least one legend — A Streetcar Named Desire, with Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy.  The Merriam (originally called the Shubert) had Kiss Me, Kate, Guys and Dolls, How to Succeed in Business, and Gypsy.  At the Forrest were Pal Joey, As Thousands Cheer, and Sondheim’s legendary cult-hit/commercial-flop, Anyone Can Whistle.

To enter any one of these theaters — and several others — is to be immersed in tradition. Yet right now there are few opportunities to do that. With the significant exception of the Walnut Street Theatre, most of them are vacant more often than they’re open.   (This critic can attest to the vitality of Philly’s local companies — but a vibrant theater scene should include a wide variety of venues as well as shows.)

Why can’t our successful local companies simply use our wonderful existing theaters?  Because what they need today is out of sync with yesterday’s grand playhouses.  Size is a big issue.  The Forrest and Merriam, designed in an era when musicals and even plays might include 30-plus characters, have more than 1,800 seats. In recent years, the Arden, Philadelphia Theatre Co. and Wilma built playhouses suited to the scale of work they do.  All three opted for between 300 and 400 seats. Fledgling companies need them even smaller, in the 100- to 150-seat range.   It’s not just a question of expense (though that figures in, of course) — it’s finding the proper scale for a more intimate experience.

Some local artists are also looking for a degree of configurability.  Terry Nolen, producing artistic director of the Arden, explains: “Early in our history, we’d used space at the Walnut Street Theatre, and then at St. Stephen’s. Later, we looked at 75 buildings, all over the place — not just in downtown Philly. But from the beginning, we knew what we wanted was complete flexibility — so that the theater could be conformed differently, and in a sense the shows themselves could dictate how the space was used. Every other decision came from that. And the fact we were able to incorporate a second performance space was a wonderful piece of luck.”

Sara Garonzik, producing artistic director of the Philadelphia Theatre Co., was for 25 years a resident at the historic Plays & Players Theatre, which at 324 seats is pretty much the right size — and had the proscenium-style stage she prefers. But Garonzik brings up other issues. “We loved the space, but had outgrown it.  We were afraid of going backwards. We needed to offer more than just great plays. We needed more amenities — greater comfort for patrons, more bathrooms. We needed to have control of our calendar; to offer classes or a summer theater camp.  We wanted state-of-the-art technology and additional public spaces — a black box, a café area.”

Suzanne Roberts Theatre
S
uzanne Roberts Theatre, home of PTC

Philadelphia Theatre Co. got all this and more in its new home, the Suzanne Roberts Theatre at Broad and Pine. The Arden in Old City is just the flexible cultural center Nolen dreamed of. Yet both he and Garonzik recognize the importance of Philadelphia’s historic playhouses. She treasures a box of old theater programs collected by a local Philly resident over several decades. He remembers seeing Estelle Parsons in Miss Margarida’s Way at the Walnut Street, which influenced his thinking about how to involve the audience

Would either of them ever consider bringing their work outside their own theaters — to a place like the Merriam or Forrest, perhaps?  Garonzik says no quickly and definitively; the kind of theater she creates simply wouldn’t suit such a large space. Nolen mulls it over – for a long time, he’s wanted to do Sondheim’s Follies, a work ideally suited for a proscenium stage and a theater with a storied past. “It would allow me to use the full orchestra, and to have real choreography. We might be able to work with 600 seats — that’s 200 more than we have in our home theater. But we certainly couldn’t fill 1,800.  There’s no way we could make that work.”

So if our local companies can’t use the big playhouses, we’re back to the tours — and there aren’t enough of them to fill these venues.  And in a sense, that’s also a good thing for local companies.  As Garonzik says, “We can now do our own versions of current plays, performed with more immediacy.” Nolen puts his finger on the irony. “The rise of the regional theater movement,” he says, “is in a sense completely tied to the death of the pre-Broadway tryout system.”

There are no definitive solutions. But the theaters remain, as do some local women and men who have made it their goal to keep them open and running.  It isn’t easy, and along the way there are triumphs, disappointments, surprises and the need for ingenious compromises.  It’s a different and interesting story every time.

The Walnut Street Theatre is the only one of Philly’s old playhouses that now functions as a fully self-producing theater, with an unmatched degree of commercial success. This year, it celebrates its 200th birthday.

Things have changed greatly over time. Once, this playhouse at Ninth and Walnut saw the famous rivals Edmund Keane and Edwin Forrest in their productions of Shakespeare; also the three Booth brothers and, later, assorted Barrymores. By the 1920s, the Walnut was a pre-eminent tryout theater for plays because of its perfect size (around 850 seats) and rich tradition.  Arthur Miller’s career began here with his first play, The Man Who Had All The Luck. Helen Hayes, Katherine Hepburn, the Lunts, Sidney Poitier, George C. Scott — all of them played the Walnut.

As the touring circuit waned in the 1960s, the theater’s profile diminished a bit. But in 1982, the Walnut got new management, who claim the theater currently has the largest subscription audience in the world.

It’s a formidable reinvention — but a case of mixed blessings. Today, the Walnut’s offerings are unapologetically commercial. World premières are a rarity, and the approach is mainstream rather than groundbreaking.  The star-studded days of Brando, Shelley Winters and Woody Allen are gone.

But in recent years, the Walnut management have made a commitment to preserving the theater’s history.  A book was published to honor its 200th anniversary, full of illustrations of past productions.  Many of these images, as well as posters and more recent photographs, now adorn the theater lobby.

Merriam Theatre Interior
Merriam Theatre

The Merriam’s situation is very different.  This 1,870-seat showplace on Broad Street was built in 1918 and originally christened the Shubert, after its legendary owner/producers. It’s the oldest of Philly’s extant Broadway-style playhouses, and one with an exceptionally glittery past. A useful mnemonic for Merriam is “Merman” — it was here that the great Ethel bookended her fabulous career with the world-première performances of her first and last hits (Girl Crazy in 1930; Gypsy in 1959).

After more than a century of continuous ownership, the Shuberts sold the theater as they downsized their out-of-Manhattan holdings. Ultimately, the space found an unlikely new owner — the University of the Arts, also on Broad Street. Charles Gilbert, interim director of their School of Theater Arts, explains: “Jack Merriam, a UArts trustee and real estate developer, made it possible for us to acquire the Shubert. He arranged for his estate to pay off the building.  UArts later rechristened the theater in his name.”

The Merriam is a remarkable and unusual asset to UArts — a large, historic theater in primary service to a training program. Says Gilbert, who directs student work here, “We always talk about the legacy of the building. I like to stand onstage and remind everybody of what has been here before. From a theater geek point of view, it’s a huge thrill.” It’s a challenge, too. Few students have ever performed in such a large space. “It’s hard work to craft performances on this scale,” says Gilbert. “Also to find the right material. We alternate musicals and plays, and it’s easier to find the former. This theater was designed at a time when some plays had casts of 30 or 35 people.”

Filling so many seats also isn’t easy. “We don’t have a publicity mechanism to bring in huge audiences, so we open only the orchestra level.” Still, Gilbert points out the value in having students learn “a real sense of the old Broadway style.”

Even with the student work (and the space is also used by UArts’ music and dance programs), there is substantial down time. “The Merriam is available on a rental basis, and we bring in all kinds of things. The Pennsylvania Ballet has used it — they need the large orchestra pit. We’ve had Chinese acrobats, and concerts by Mandy Patinkin. Also plays and musicals on what was historically called Chitlin’ Circuit.”  (Ed. Note: Demeaning as the term sounds, this is a recognized theatrical category — plays and musicals with African-American casts and themes that are marketed almost exclusively to the black community.)

Gilbert points out that the Merriam brings back the kind of variety that is itself a theatrical tradition.  But the space is still underutilized, and would benefit from additional renters.   He acknowledges, though, that it’s an expensive proposition – beyond the means of many companies.

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F
orrest Theatre

The Forrest resembles the Merriam in many ways, including that it too was  built and operated by the Shuberts.  In this case, the organization still owns and operates the theater, as they have since 1927, a genuinely heroic track record in arts management.  Let’s be clear from the start — the Forrest is operational, and Mark Schweppe, its general manager, discusses the future in business-as-usual terms.  It’s a jewel box of a space, similar in size and style to the Merriam, but if anything more comfortable and elegantly proportioned. The auditorium is in pristine condition.

So far, so good. But their calendar indicates only one upcoming engagement — A Chorus Line will dock here for a few weeks during the holidays. After that? Schweppe politely dodges an answer.

The Forrest might be the quintessential poster-child playhouse, despite the Shuberts’ continuing ownership and commitment. How long can a theater survive with less than a month of future bookings?

In 2003, things looked rosier. The Forrest was scheduled for a tryout of Barry Manilow’s new musical, Harmony. The plan was for the show to run here for six weeks. Expectations ran high, and there was a lot of attention in the press. It looked like a throwback to the earlier tradition of pre-Broadway.

But Harmony went belly-up before it reached the Forrest, followed by a storm of litigation that briefly put Manilow in the hospital.  Since then, bookings have been thin.  Not that there’s no hope. Schweppe reminds me that they are participants in the Broadway at the Academy series, which is the source of the Chorus Line booking. No doubt there will be more down the line. If you walk by the Forrest today, you’ll see its façade plastered with posters for upcoming shows — at the Walnut Street Theatre, two blocks away. (Walnut’s management is nothing if not entrepreneurial.) Meanwhile, until Chorus Line arrives, there is one way to get a glimpse of the theater’s interior. UArt’s Charlie Gilbert tells the story: “The movie Jersey Girl called for a scene in a Broadway-style theater, and it was filmed in the Forrest.” Gilbert laughs: “I was actually in it. You can even see about seven seconds of me — playing Sweeney Todd.”

Plays & Players Theatre
P
lays and Players Theatre

At 324-seats, the ultra-intimate Plays & Players on Delancey Street is a considerably different proposition from the Merriam or the Forrest.  But like them, it has an historic past – and faces an uncertain future.

Several things are notable about Plays & Players.  One is its charm.  “That’s what it all comes down to — it’s indefinable, but it’s there,” says John Cannon, a board member and legal advisor who has been involved with P&P for 40 years.  “It’s beautiful.  Faded, but beautiful,” says Sara Garonzik, whose Philadelphia Theatre Co. was P&P’s resident for a quarter-century.

It’s also superbly designed performance space.  Garonzik continues: “I loved it and still love it.  There’s something perfect, almost sacred about the dimensions — the size and shape of the proscenium.  Perfect proportions and acoustics.”   Cannon adds that, “it’s a wonderful theater with an excellent lighting system.”

What’s also undeniable is that P&P needs a lot of work. The auditorium is shabby.  Seats are uncomfortable.   Lack of bathroom access had become a wry joke among PTC patrons.  Stage technology needs updating.  Small financial gifts provide some help – “The city has given a grant for a new sound system,” Cannon mentions.  But there’s currently no source of funding for the deeper, costlier renovations.

P&P’s best hope is to find new resident companies, and there are some positive signs.  “1812 Productions did a show here last year, and will do two next season — maybe it’s the beginning of a relationship? We also want to continue as a non-professional community theater. We’re the only one in downtown Philly.”

The combination of part-community/part-professional theater has given P&P an especially quirky – indeed, charming – history.  Though the place is far too small to have been a regular Broadway tryout house, they can nonetheless claim a couple of world premières — Stalag 17, and Terrence McNally’s Master Class, which was produced by the Philadelphia Theater Co.  Cannon is skeptical about some of the stories surrounding P&P.  “The Barrymores didn’t appear here. John Drew certainly didn’t — the theater wasn’t even built yet.” (The P&P building functioned as a performing arts school by 1911, and as a playhouse by 1923.)  What about the legend that playwright George Kelly — uncle of Grace — modeled The Torch Bearers, his delightful comedy about a community theater, on P&P?  “In those days I’m not sure how enthusiastically they would have embraced Catholics.”  But he also points out that some intriguing people did perform on the P&P stage: Charles Bronson, a very young Kevin Bacon, and the marvelous character actor Henry Jones.

More than anything Cannon wants to keep the place up and running.  “We have nice public spaces, too,” he reminds me – “a bar on the third floor, and a large club space.  We’re open for rentals.”

Boyd Theatre screen
I
nterior of the Boyd Theatre

It’s difficult enough for a working theater to raise funds. But finding support for a closed auditorium — one that will require many steps to reopen, and faces a still-uncertain future — that’s a challenge. Precisely the one facing the Boyd Theatre, an early Art Deco landmark at 19th and Chestnut.

Yet in many ways the ongoing saga of this theater, which changed hands from the Sameric corporation to United Artists before closing in 2002, is a positive one. Much of the credit is due to the indefatigable Howard B. Haas, a Center City attorney and resident who has made preserving the Boyd a major mission. He’s finding extensive community support.  On July 16, the Philadelphia Historical Commission Designation Committee unanimously voted to recommend that the Boyd be added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. This is good news, but not the ultimate solution. As Haas points out, “There’s another important vote on August 8.  If the Historical Commission votes in favor then, the Boyd will be protected from demolition.”  Even this isn’t the end of the line, he cautions.  “It still wouldn’t be protected from gutting.”

Haas is a Philadelphia native, and he vividly remembers his first trip to the Boyd. “Twenty years ago, I walked in and couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. Yet there was a sign on the door that it was marked for demolition. I was horrified. I joined the Theatre Historical Society of America, and went across the country to see how other theaters had been saved.”

The Boyd is an anomaly here. First, it was designed for silent movies, though like most from its era (it opened on Christmas Day, 1928), it can support live theater, and has a stage and orchestra pit.  But whatever the Boyd’s future, it won’t be exclusively as a movie house. “We’re planning to continue to accommodate films, and we’d love to see it used for Hollywood-style premières and occasional special engagements,” explains Haas. “But for regular movie showings, it’s just too big.”

At more than 2,300 seats, the Boyd is the largest theater discussed here. Bigger isn’t necessarily better, and it certainly doesn’t make it easier to find a buyer.  In 2005, the theater was acquired by Clear Channel, Inc.  Two years later, Clear Channel’s theater holdings became an independent company called Live Nation.  Neither Clear Channel nor Live Nation opened the Boyd for business.  (About the best thing that can be said for the earlier Sameric/United Artists management is that they didn’t destroy the place entirely.)

The Boyd is once again on the market, and the goal now, says Haas, is a new buyer who will get the theater back up-and-running.  “We met with several different parties interested in purchasing, restoring and reopening the Boyd. Whoever acquires it will still need rehabilitation funding to get it back on line.”

In other words, this is a long road.  Haas is candid about it — also candid about the need to make it happen. “Philly has to do a much better job than we’re doing right now. It’s ridiculous that we have so many magnificent theaters that are just sitting unused.” Of course, this kind of activism is a huge job. Haas devotes considerable energy toward it all, including regular e-mail updates to his large network of supporters. Few theaters could find such a tireless advocate.

*               *               *               *               *

This is only a sampling. There are other Center City theaters with similarly long, distinguished histories. Society Hill Playhouse once upon a time had a formidable reputation for avant-garde work.  Freedom Theatre, Philadelphia’s formative African-American company, acquired the Edwin Forrest mansion on North Broad Street and built within it the elegant John Allen Stage. In nearby Rose Valley, you’ll find the tiny Hedgerow, a picture-perfect theater that’s been in use since the 1920s. Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope was once the most famous summer theater in America, where locals like George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart and Oscar Hammerstein would find their work performed by important actors.   Consider too some of our closed movie theaters – the Royal, at 15th and South, once a showplace for the African American entertainment industry; the Sedgwick on Germantown Avenue, a Deco palace now long shuttered.

There is no certain future for these and many other theaters in our eternally shifting cityscape.  Increased attendance at those that remain open is critical. Even the Merriam’s student work, and community productions at Plays & Players, are open to the general public (at considerably lower prices than some professional companies). And it’s one way to get a look at the interior. Another might be a series of exhibits, sponsored by some of Philadelphia’s archival collections (the Free Library, Athenaeum and the Philadelphia City Archive have exceptional materials that could be displayed). A few theaters have auxiliary groups — a membership to Plays & Players, for example, costs about $35. As rental spaces, a number of these are open for non-theatrical use (and have public spaces for receptions). A bar mitzvah or wedding in a theater might not be for everyone, but it’s undeniably dramatic — imagine the glamour of walking down the aisle, proceeded by an usherette with a flashlight.

It’s almost a certainty that some of them won’t survive, in which case we can hope for some creative and careful re-purposing. There are some stunning models – El Ateneo bookstore in Buenos Aires, a converted movie palace that retains nearly all of the original architecture, is a downtown landmark.  But of course, in an ideal world, theaters remain operating theaters, and the traditions continue.

*               *               *               *               *

It’s not just old theaters that meet their end. In June, one of Philly’s most beloved companies, Mum Puppettheatre, which for 23 years ran under the artistic direction of Robert Smythe, closed the doors of its tiny playhouse on Arch Street. Much of the theater’s property was sold in a single day. Philly theater director Whit MacLaughlin, who was there, wrote a poignant elegy on the listserv of the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, a service organization with a large membership serving the local community. MacLaughlin’s comments bring us eerily full-circle to that photo of Gloria Swanson at the Roxy. “I have no idea how, exactly, to write this: Am I addressing a birth or a death … or both?  I stopped by Mum Puppettheatre this morning, briefly, to pick something up and saw Robert Smythe, standing in his theatre amidst the hugeness of his work as pieces of it were being sold to eager buyers. Hundreds and hundreds of recognizable characters, puppets, lying on long tables.”

Yet MacLaughlin recognizes new opportunities, as well.  “Artists of Robert’s stature make transitions — that is their nature. I feel loss and discouragement. But I also feel anxious to find out what Robert will cook up next. Mum is dead. Long live Mum.”

If what’s coming next for some of our important theaters is a question, it’s certain that any solution requires wide-ranging support.  From our civic and cultural institutions, who have the financial means to help.  From theater owners and property managers, as well as artists, to think of imaginative new ways to keep the doors open.  And from audiences, of course.

What’s next, Philadelphia?  Will our theaters have a third act?

Postscript: Philly Saw It First!
In the days of pre-Broadway tours, Philly was one of the big three cities (along with Boston and New Haven) that got plays and musicals in their tryout period.  Here are some shows that opened in a Philadelphia theater… before they hit the Great White Way:

At the Walnut Street Theatre:

  • Streetcar Named Desire (with the legendary original cast: Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy)
  • A Raisin in the Sun (Sidney Poitier)
  • Mr. Roberts (Henry Fonda)
  • Gigi (the non-musical version starring Audrey Hepburn, who would make her Broadway debut in the role)
  • Member of the Wedding (Julie Harris, Ethel Waters)
  • Diary of Anne Frank (Susan Strasberg – daughter of the famous Lee)
  • Rainmaker (Geraldine Page)
  • Bus Stop (Kim Stanley, Elaine Stritch)

At the Merriam Theatre:

  • By Cole Porter: Kiss Me, Kate, Out of the This World, Can Can, Silk Stockings
  • By Frank Loesser: Guys and Dolls, Most Happy Fella, Greenwillow, How to Succeed in Business
  • By George and Ira Gershwin: Funny Face, Oh! Kay, Girl Crazy, Strike Up the Band
  • By Irving Berlin: Annie, Get Your Gun
  • By Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim: Gypsy

At the Forrest Theater:

  • An important house for Rodgers and Hart, including Pal Joey, which introduced Gene Kelly as a leading performer, and paved the way for “dark” musicals like Cabaret and Chicago; also the revised Connecticut Yankee, the team’s last project together.
  • Irving Berlin’s As Thousands Cheer, a revolutionary revue with songs that included “Supper Time” and “Heat Wave,” both introduced by Ethel Waters; also Miss Liberty.
  • Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle, which would become a famous Broadway failure (12 previews, 9 performances, then out) – but a cult favorite.  Whistle was also Angela Lansbury’s first Broadway musical.

Categories: Philadelphia, Theater

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