Getting Center City movie theater a second run wasn't easy

The Roxy reopened Dec. 20 with larger screens, new seats and projectors, surround sound, and more.
The Roxy reopened Dec. 20 with larger screens, new seats and projectors, surround sound, and more. (ED HILLE / Staff)
Posted: February 18, 2014

The leaky roof, dilapidated screening rooms, and vermin were bad enough. Then came a litany of surprises that nearly quadrupled the price of its risky renovation bid.

But Center City's Little Movie Theater That Could - the Roxy, a two-screen celluloid cave whose closure in 2012 darkened the last screens in what once was the heart of Philadelphia's movie district - is back in business with the do-over of a lifetime.

A funky little venue best known as a onetime home to midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the once-forsaken Roxy is showing motion pictures again at its double-storefront home at 2021-23 Sansom St.

The Roxy's second act has not come cheaply or easily, despite its diminutive footprint. Just a half-block from the mothballed Boyd Theater - a 1920s-era movie palace caught in a tug-of-war between preservationists and investors - the Roxy symbolizes all that can go wrong with what seems, on paper, to be simple: reopening an old movie theater.

"The project cost considerably more than any of us had projected," said landlord-architect John Ciccone.

"Everything just took more time than we anticipated. ... We had hoped to be open" on April 13, 2012. "Instead, we made it at the end of the year," said Philadelphia Film Society executive director Andrew Greenblatt, the Roxy's new tenant and operator.

Ciccone and Greenblatt originally banked on a $250,000 to $300,000 spruce-up project. What they now face is a tab nearing $1 million, and fund-raising in gear to raise half of that to cover costs and unfinished work.

"Sincerely, I hope it's going to succeed," Ciccone said. "It's a very large risk on everybody's part, and I hope the community realizes the passion and the risk that is being taken in order to make this a success."

The Roxy reopened to the public on Dec. 20, practically unrecognizable from the near-ruin it had been: higher ceiling, expanded lobby, larger screens, new drywall and seats, surround sound, acoustic wall panels, digital projectors, new 35-millimeter projectors, even new bathrooms.

A rear wall was reconstructed, a crumbling front wall repaired to historic specifications, the roof redone, floors excavated and lowered, and projection booths moved.

For a venue charging $12 to $15 per ticket and seating just 160 post-renovation (compared with 280 before), this was a costly per-head punchlist.

But the Roxy had been on life support for years. Center City lawyer Bernard Nearey had run it as a passion project, with deep pockets lacking for big capital improvements.

"I never understood why my neighbors in Rittenhouse Square would have chosen to go there," said film buff Louis Bluver.

For years, theater viewing of films had waned in favor of digital downloads and on-demand TV. Then, Hollywood studios said they would no longer release movies on film in 2014. The Roxy had no digital projectors and little hope.

So when Nearey's lease ended in late 2012, Ciccone replaced him with the film society as tenant-operator.

The film society placed in charge of the renovation Rebecca Cain, who had helped restore the Virginia Theatre, a 1,450-seat movie palace in Illinois. The City of Champaign had bought the 1921 theater for $1 from a nonprofit and renovated it.

"Back then," Cain said, "there was more government money to be had."

Cain was hired as development director as Greenblatt revamped the troubled film society's operations. In fact, when the Roxy redo began, the society had just begun to turn a profit.

But raising money was hard. The poor economy meant government aid was no longer a ready resource.

"I did a lot of praying," Cain said.

But the Roxy was a worthy risk to Greenblatt. His $1-million-a-year group would finally have an anchor for its work, including the annual Philadelphia Film Festival.

Cain launched a campaign through the online fundraising site Kickstarter that netted $43,000 for new seats. She also secured a $50,000 Merchants Fund grant to help reduce the loans used to purchase $250,000 in digital projectors and sound equipment.

As crews dug into the Roxy's guts and bones, optimism gave way to shock.

Workers uncovered layers of wallpaper. Rings were found in a brick party wall. Had these been homes? A stable?

"It was a real mess," Cain said.

The crumbling Sansom Street facade, requiring Philadelphia Historical Commission review for renovations, had been recklessly patched with glass block, concrete, and other throwaway materials through the years.

Water leaks into the screening rooms also had caused extensive damage.

"Pretty much all the ceiling beams to the front of the building were replaced," Cain said.

To make the Roxy attractive to modern-day film viewers, one of its floors would have to be lowered, a ceiling raised, larger screens put in - the list seemed endless.

Ciccone had hoped to be in and out with an investment of $60,000. The film society had hoped its biggest expense would be seats, sound, and digital and projection systems.

Instead, costs were spiraling.

"There came a point where we had to decide if we were going all in and doing it right," Cain said.

The verdict: "We decided we had to enlarge the scope of the program," said Ciccone. How would the Roxy attract enough customers otherwise?

Ciccone, who had already given the film society a lease at a "very reasonable rent rate," according to Greenblatt, was now in even deeper.

"John has been a tremendous partner throughout the entire process," Greenblatt said.

Among the good surprises, however, was Bluver.

A successful businessman with fond memories of Center City's glorious movie-house days, Bluver was supportive of unrealized efforts to preserve Boyd. But he had not been in the Roxy in a decade, soured by its seedy decrepitude.

"I've been very sad to see the decline over the years of movie theaters in Center City," Bluver said.

He was intrigued that the Roxy's Kickstarter campaign had drawn donations beyond the film society's 1,000-member base.

"I contacted them and said I'd be interested," Bluver said.

He donated $100,000, became a board member, and agreed that one of two screening rooms will bear his name.

Also a help was board member Peter Dachowski, who donated drywall, lumber, and costly acoustic panels.

The first few weeks after it reopened with Saving Mr. Banks, the Roxy sold out every prime time weekend show.

"I was extremely impressed," Bluver said. "Every single seat was full, which showed there was a need for this type of theater."

But success is not assured. The return of midnight screenings, along with weekend children's films, are among ideas to beef up attendance. An additional $500,000 is needed to build a concession stand, second-floor office space, and a third screening room, while also paying down debt.

And yet, said Cain: "We're almost there."


mpanaritis@phillynews.com

215-854-2431

@Panaritism

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