Filing for bankruptcy in 2010, the Prince Music Theater at 1412 Chestnut St. did not vanish instantly but braced itself for a long goodbye. The Philadelphia Film Society recently finalized its purchase of the theater and has plans to refit it not only for theatrical productions but stand-up comedy, cabaret performances and film screenings.
“It had been in a state of constant disarray for a couple of years in terms of management and financial stability,” said PFS managing director Parinda Patel.
The ailing theater had been negotiating with interested individuals and other theater companies as late as last year but talks were tepid and eventually ground to a halt. A committed buyer didn’t emerge until the Wyncote Foundation, a local charitable trust, bequeathed $8 million to PFS to purchase the building.
“It was very much an interest of a lot of the arts community – and the film community as well – in making sure that a building this beautiful didn’t become another retail location,” said Patel.
In addition to the purchase price, the Wyncote Foundation provided an endowment to cover the theater’s operating costs for the next three years.
Though the theater was in financial straits in recent years, its doors were never officially closed.
“It always had tenants in the past few years,” said WHYY theater critic Howard Shapiro, citing the David Lynch retrospective that PFS had held there last year as an example.
Shapiro has been a theater critic since the Prince’s heyday and remembers the energy and eclecticism of its early performances.
“It was really a pretty polished house,” he said.
The Prince Music Theater was one of many that served as a kind of “tryout,” to use Shapiro’s word, where directors and producers would put on and test a production before its eventual Broadway performance. The theater had helped develop this model, but its last original production was a live radio play of It’s a Wonderful Life in 2008.
Patel said that the Prince would continue in its rental capacity for now.
“We’re no longer going to facilitate live productions in terms of doing all the production work,” she said. “The new iteration is going to be a rental facility.”
The Wilma Theater and the Curtis Institute of Music have expressed interest in using the space for rehearsals and recitals.
What some may bill the theater’s transformation is, in fact, a sort of regression. The Prince Music Theater’s first two incarnations, as the ornate Karlton Theater in 1921 and and the sedate Midtown Theater in 1950, were cinemas. It wasn’t until the building’s acquisition by the American Music Theater Festival in 1999 that it became a performance space.
The Prince Music Theater is reopening with the hip-hop musical The Last Jimmy but will be incorporating more film screenings and other performances into its programming as it reasserts its place in Philadelphia’s arts community.
– Text and images by Sunil Chopade.