Mayfair’s Devon Theater for the Performing Arts may be closed, but some local residents said plans for its future are still alive, and they 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 less than two years before succumbing to financial troubles and closing for good in December.
The newly renovated playhouse’s grand opening in March 2009 was the product of a multimillion-dollar restoration, pioneered by the Mayfair Community Development Corp., which 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 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 Odd Couple.”
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, a concession bar, an 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 thinks 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 would like to see the Devon host independent and classic movies, children’s theater, school shows for local schools that lack an auditorium and theater classes.
“Another important goal would be to rent out the remaining store fronts,” Cardonick said.
“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, Boyle said he wants to see a good tenant occupy the building and keep it as a theater. He is 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 it first opened in 1946.
The original Devon was a busy 800-seat movie theater and a favorite among local residents. 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 33 years, 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 of play 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.”