It was back on Jan. 6, 1965, that the Southwark Company staged the facility's first stage production, Bertolt Brecht's "Galileo," in the formerly abandoned Model Theatre movie house. After $60,000 in renovations - including the removal of 169 of the theater's 600 seats to make way for the stage - the house at 334 South St. was rechristened the Theater of the Living Arts, and a bona fide regional theater was born.
Overseen by the Philadelphia Council for the Performing Arts, and under the artistic direction of Andre Gregory, the theater succeeded for nearly three seasons. Then, halfway through 1967, Gregory left after a dispute with the board of directors over fiscal management.
By that time the venue was $1 million in the red, and all but one member of the old company had departed for greener pastures. The remainder of the season was largely disappointing - both critically and at the box office. In-fighting and changes in leadership abounded.
After floundering for four years, the Theater of the Living Arts went bankrupt in 1971. The property was then leased by entrepeneur Al Malmfelt, who turned it into Theater of Living Arts Cinema, a repertory film house.
In addition to screening classics, foreign films and old serials, Malmfelt began a "monsters at midnight" film series. The most popular - and controversial - of these, "Rocky Horror Picture Show," hit the TLA screen in 1976 and quickly became a cult classic.
By 1978, the American Theater Arts for Youth had begun using TLA's stage to produce curriculum-oriented productions for school children in the afternoon.
"We were there for about four years," said founder and director Laurie Wagman. "We enjoyed the theater, which had a wonderful history of avant-garde theater and state-of-the-art acoustics. The size was just wonderful for our audiences. It wasn't so large where they felt they could not participate.
"We did many, many musicals there, including 'Tom Sawyer,' 'Babes in Toyland,' 'The Wizard of Oz' and 'Robin Hood.' We saw more in our audiences than probably any other group that's been in the theater, maybe 50,000 kids a year. We left because we simply needed more space and more time than the TLA could give us."
Gradually, Malmfelt's attempt to supply the public with off-beat films ran into the red. By November 1980 - according to Leon Silverman, the lawyer representing the partnership that owned the building at that time - Malmfelt was $106,000 in arrears on rent and loan repayments.
At the same time, rock entrepreneur Stephen Starr took an option to buy the building for $600,000, with hopes of relocating his Stars night club, then at 2nd & Bainbridge streets, to the larger space. Facing eviction and a $1,000 judgement against the TLA management, Malmfelt, finanacially unable to fight his ouster, was forced to close the theater.
Starr's plans for opening a club were brought to a halt when the Liquor Control Board, spurred by protests of South Street residents and merchants who felt the area already had more than its share of liquor-serving establishments, turned down his request for a liquor license.
Starr then reopened the building as The Palace, a movie house that provided much the same menu as TLA. After a year and a half, three of Malmfelt's former employees, Ray Murray, Claire Brown and Alex Roberts, purchased the property, forming Repertory Cinema Inc.
"I started working as projectionist and manager for TLA Cinema from 1972-1981," said Murray. "When it closed, the staff went separate ways. We opened up a repertory house at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby and called it 'TLA at the Tower' - sort of theater in exile. In November 1981 we closed the Tower operation and moved back into the theater. We leased for a year, then bought it in December of 1982."
Shortly afterward, Murray and company aquired the lease to the Roxy Theater at 2021 Sansom St., and renamed it the TLA-Roxy Screening Room. They operated both houses until September when, faced with heavy competition from the home- video boom, they decided to sell the South Street location to Spivak.
"The main intention . . . is to show about 400 films a year, which is very expensive," Murray said. "It also takes a lot of time and energy. We saw the trends changing about a year and a half ago. Home video has really taken the life out of repertory cinema in this country. There is less and less incentive to stay a revival house.
"So the decision was, 'Do we turn to first-run or do live theater?' We decided it would take too much money to change the place back into a theater house, so we decided to concentrate on art videos and the Roxy screening rooms."
Murray has mixed emotions concerning the sale. "I'm tremendously sad to see it it gone - it's been a part of my life for 16 years - but I'm tremendously happy about who's taking it over," he said.
"Other organizations came to us, like the Wilma Theater and various dance groups, but this is a very expensive place to run, and it needs a strong organization to sustain it. Bringing in nice productions is one thing, but Electric Factory is also able to bring in new crowd. They have a specific goal in mind and a specific audience.
As producer of "Lady Day," Spivak has brought the Old Lady of South Street full circle.
"Originally, I was looking for a venue in Philadelphia to produce a company of 'Beehive' and found no facility around," he said. "When I heard this was for sale, I was surprised at what a wonderful off-Broadway house it could be. I always felt the city lacked the type of venue that could bring in off-Broadway shows.
"I think that the combination of theater and South Street creates a total entertainment package that will draw people," said Spivak, who hopes to mount ''Little Shop of Horrors" next.
"Unlike downtown, there are 15 to 20 of the best restaurants in the city right in the area, along with 900 parking spaces. If people come out to an 8 p.m. performance, they can stroll and shop afterwards. To be able to see a show and then enjoy the hippest street in Philadelphia is an attraction that should be promoted."
Stephen Stahl, writer of "Lady Day," also will direct the TLA production, which marks the show's national debut. The production has played successfully in Paris and London.
"Lady Day is an intimate show and that feeling of closeness would be lost in a large, legitimate theater," said Stahl. "Here, we can bring the character right to the audience."
A musical based on the life of Billie Holiday
At TLA, 334 SouthSt.