Roxy Theater's operator must be out by Nov. 6

The Roxy Theater, on Sansom Avenue, will close in November. It's uncertain whether it will reopen.
The Roxy Theater, on Sansom Avenue, will close in November. It's uncertain whether it will reopen.
Posted: September 29, 2012

The story of one of Center City's most eccentric mini-landmarks, the Roxy Theater, has taken on the quality of a motion-picture plot, as two Rittenhouse Square-area men part ways over the future of the only cinema still showing widely released films in the heart of Philadelphia.

For one man to win, the other must lose. And so it goes that the theater operator's dream is dying as its owner pursues a new vision for the beat-up but beloved (by some) relic near the square.

Also taking a hit in the clash between protagonist and antagonist: the long-frayed venue itself, which has survived on the 2000 block of Sansom Street after all others in its neighborhood did not. The Roxy will close in November for the first time in 15 years, with only a vague promise that it might reopen soon.

The man dimming the lights: investor-architect and self-styled Renaissance man John Ciccone, 69, who bought the Roxy in 2008 for $1.1 million from the estate of apparel magnate and A Clockwork Orange producer Max Raab after decades of scooping up land nearby. Ciccone also owns a plot across the street that housed the Wilma Theater and is now home to the Adrienne.

The man being shown the door: tenant Bernard Nearey, 57, who single-handedly brought the Roxy back to life 15 years ago as its one-man booker of films - a deal the starstruck lawyer made with Raab in 1997, the last time the Roxy was shut down.

Nearey and his film equipment must be out Nov. 6, when his lease is up.

According to the man with the money, it's time to reimagine the Roxy, even if it means wresting it from its longtime steward.

"It's a passion project," Ciccone said of how his soon-to-be-displaced tenant has viewed the Roxy. "He puts a lot of time in there. His mother works in there with him. He's been very dedicated . . . there's no doubt."

Nearey is angry but realistic. As a lawyer, he said, he believed Ciccone was acting within his rights, even if his business motives remained less clear.

"He has the absolute right to terminate the lease," Nearey said near the open door of a projection booth that roared as giant film reels unspooled The Campaign into one of the Roxy's two 125-seat auditoriums.

"I don't have a leg to stand on," added Nearey, a Southwest Philadelphia native who runs a one-man law practice near Rittenhouse Square, the neighborhood where he has lived for years.

This tilt over a faded theater is set on a city block once so seedy that few would touch it. Today, it is prime real estate in a resurgent enclave.

Hip watering holes and eateries such as Shake Shack, Melograno, and chef Jose Garces' Village Whiskey and Tinto wine bar have planted stakes near 20th and Sansom. New residential towers are going up nearby, too.

"That corner of the city is getting activity and development, ground-up development, which is clearly something new," said longtime commercial broker Larry Steinberg of Fameco Real Estate.

Steinberg described Ciccone as an opportunistic buyer who has accumulated properties around 20th and Sansom through the years, sits on them, and stabilizes them with "decent tenants."

Indeed, one of Ciccone's earliest purchases after he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and set up an architectural firm in Philadelphia was a parcel across from the Roxy.

That would become the Wilma Theater. Today, it is the Adrienne, home to many nonprofit troupes.

Ciccone said return on investment is not so much his motivator with the Roxy as finding something interesting to do with it - especially given a major movie-industry shift on the horizon.

In 2013, studios will stop distributing films in the 35mm celluloid format still used by the Roxy.

"The big deal is you have to have different projectors," Ciccone said. Digital ones, which sell for $70,000 to $100,000 apiece.

"Somebody has to be able to put that kind of money into the Roxy in order to show any recent-edition film," he said. "The handwriting is on the wall."

Ciccone said he hoped to make the capital upgrades needed to keep the Roxy as a movie theater, but was not against considering a dining-with-film-viewing model. No deal, however, is in the works.

Ciccone is a longtime artist (watercolors) and semiretired entrepreneur (he has run a construction business, owned a gas station that peddled biofuel, and designed courthouses, schools, and other public buildings in and around his native Paterson, N.J.).

"There's different ways it could go," he said of the Roxy's near-term fate. "It could be dark for a very short time and open right up, or I could wait a few months and open it."

Ciccone said he wanted to take more direct control over the theater, maybe even hiring a sizable staff to screen niche films, lure directors to showings, and book wide-release first-run films.

Nearey finds that dubious. He struggled against mighty market forces to keep the Roxy afloat against competitors such as the Ritz chain, which gets exclusive dibs on independent films in Center City, locking out the Roxy on such flicks. How would a new Roxy fight that?

"I don't really understand his thought process on this place," Nearey said.

What's more, he said, Ciccone has made virtually no improvements to the Roxy to date, despite a long-leaky roof, for instance, that requires that buckets be used during movies.

"If he wouldn't spend the dough to fix the roof in four years," Nearey asked, "what do you think is going to happen here?"

Contact Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or or @panaritism on Twitter.

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