News Column

There's new life in vintage clubs and theaters

October 29, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 29--DON'T you hate when a once-gorgeous movie theater or meaningful music club is transformed into a drugstore, torn down for a parking lot or left to fester like a rotting carcass? We've suffered a bunch of these cultural losses through the years, from the intimate showcase spots (Main Point, Bijou, Peps) to the ornate Market Street stage and movie palaces (Mastbaum, Erlanger) to the ghosts of Philly's music past that loom still but no longer speak -- South Street's long dethroned Royal and North Philly's barely upright Uptown.

So, when a club or theater is actually brought back to life or pumped up with improvements designed to reinforce and broaden its mission, we say hoorah! And, miracle upon miracle, there are five such comeback stories worth hootin' and hollerin' about this fall. Maybe it's a sign that the economy really is improving?

Ardmore Music Hall

23 E. Lancaster Ave., Ardmore

Backstory/Front Story: A couple of decades back, this location was a pretty cool cave for rock, folk and blues music when the Mountain men (Steve and Greg) ran it as 23 East, part of their Cabaret chain. Rival operation Brownies then took it over and spent a fortune turning it into a close approximation of a shore bar-with the boring cover band entertainment to match.

Yours truly never set foot in the joint in all those Brownies years. But now I' m heading back, for its reincarnation as the Ardmore Music Hall. Once again, the location is looking to be a contender -- fighting for established as well as rising national bands and solo talent. Coming distractions include Robert Randolph, Johnny Winter, Rusted Root, Erin McKeown and Felice Bros.

"We're thinking about trying some EDM [electronic dance music], too, " shared Rich Kardon, of Point Entertainment, one of the seasoned team (along with Jesse Lundy and Brian Dilworth) helping holdover club lessee Joe Rufo get with a 2013 agenda.

Kardon and Lundy used to run the Point, just down the avenue -- the first place that Norah Jones played town -- and they still book the Colonial Theater, in Phoenixville, King of Prussia's Concerts Under the Stars and the Philadelphia Folk Festival.

The layout: The club was radically modernized in the Brownies era, with only the fa ade staying the same, the low ceiling club itself replaced by a soaring, open two-story design, complete with wrap-around balcony. Now the new management has moved the stage from the west sidewall to the back and modified the seating areas so that it no longer feels like a bar with music but a music hall with a bar. That's so true that the club is open nights only when an act is booked in. Games-showing TV screens shut off as soon as talent takes to the stage.

Amenities: The mostly new sound system has been digitally tuned and timed so you don't hear echoes even up in the balcony, though the bass notes beat best directly in front of the stage, Sightlines are good everywhere downstairs, fair to middlin' in the balcony. Some railing hangers will find it fun to hover over the stage. Holds as many as 600 warm bodies, but can be downsized with curtains to an all-seated, 300 capacity.

Penn's Landing Playhouse

Columbus Boulevard

at the foot of Walnut Street

Backstory/Front Story: When the Independence Seaport Museum was built as a Bicentennial-era attraction (originally called the Port of History Museum), Governor Milton Shapp pushed for extra funding to ensure that it contained a 500-seat theater suited especially for classical-music performances. OK. Make that exclusively -- to give a concert home to the Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia (now called Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia) and the Pennsylvania Opera Theater -- endeavors near and dear to the governor's heart (his opera singing son, Richard, trained at Curtis and was pals with classmate/Concerto Soloists founder/conductor Marc Mostovoy.)

But what made the theater great for serious music made it lousy for anything else, a white elephant nobody wanted to rent for shows. There's no "fly" room overhead for hanging sets, barely any wings or dressing rooms. The riverfront location is almost invisible. Parking lots are plentiful, but the bulk of meter parking is on the other side of the Walnut St. foot bridge crossing I-95, which requires walk-in guests to (egads) ascend/descend a full flight of steps.

Still, where others see lemons, Philly guy Phil Roy and his 20-year theatrical producing partner Dana Matthow now hope to extract lemonade, taking a five year lease on the house. Truth is, the kind of frothy shows they specialize in -- "intimate" (small cast), one-set lifestyle comedies like the currently residing "You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up!" and previous hits like "Menopause, The Musical" -- fit the theater to a "t."

The layout: The newly renamed Penn's Landing Playhouse has excellent sight lines and well articulated sound, no matter where you sit . For the current show (playing til Nov. 24) they've covered most balcony seating to achieve a cozier feel.

Amenities: Enjoy nautical exhibits on your way in and out. Just a few steps away there's a very pretty/romantic waterfront view and Penn's Landing promenade to stroll, and a hotel bar/restaurant in the adjacent Hyatt Regency for pre- and post-show refreshments.

Boot & Saddle

1131 S. Broad St.

Backstory/FrontStory: One of the oddest comebacks in local show-biz history, this 17-years-abandoned, former country and western club (in South Philly? Really?) is now one of the coolest hipster hangs in town. And, wonder upon wonder, the new proprietors hardly had to touch the d cor -- all rustic, chuckwagon- style wood tables, wall treatments and knick-knacks up front, and turn-of-the-century fancy meeting room in back -- dressed up with pressed tin walls and ceilings. We're guessing that's where pre B&S tenants -- Knights of Columbus and Knights of Pythias -- staged ceremonies.

Dating back to the turn of the 20th century, the building was bought and transformed into a country bar in 1969 by Pete Del Borrello, a one-time Navy chief petty officer and neighborhood businessman (Bambi Cleaners, a check cashing service), who fashioned B&S to appeal to down-home sailor boys on shore leave or stationed down Broad at the Navy Yard.

Now it's probably pulling people who work at the same decommissioned base, though for Urban Outfitters. Plus lots of the young adults who've moved to the 'hood and helped revitalize the nearby strip of dining/drinking establishments on Passayunk Ave.

Boot & Saddle's comeback has been staged by Mark Fichera and Avram Hornik (Four Corners Management), who've also salvaged castaways like Ortliebs Lounge and the Dolphin Tavern, and transformed the former Spring Garden Street train depot/Spaghetti Warehouse into Union Transfer..

The cool acts (Hayden, Wild Feathers, Basia Bulat) are being booked -- as is Union Transfer -- by Philly's Sean Agnew (R5 Productions) and New York's Bowery Presents. But while Union Transfer competes mostly with Electric Factory, TLA and World Caf Live for talent, Boot & Saddle seems to be taking bleeding-edge shows and customers away from Johnny Brenda's and the smaller Upstairs at World Caf Live.

The layout: There's a nice 'n friendly flow through the 60-seat front bar/dining room to the music room in back, on the other side of seriously soundproofed doors. The combination of pressed metal walls and ceiling and hardwood floor, plus a strong sound system, makes for an exceedingly crisp, loud musical presentation in the rectangular-shaped concert room -- holding 150-plus (all standing) and filled to capacity on a recent visit to catch uber-guitarist Marc Ribot. But with a fairly low stage (and ceiling) and the trio all seated, sight lines were abysmal.

Amenities: Beers start at $3.50; food service (5 to 10 p.m. weekdays, til midnight weekends) features creative, mostly vegan food, though you can score a turkey burger. Rather eat Moo Shoo Pork or a stack of flapjacks? A Chinese restaurant and the revived Broad Street Diner are half a block away.

Prince Music Theater

1412 Chestnut St.

The Backstory/Front Story: Originally the Karlton, then Midtown movie theater and, since 1999, a nurturing and ultimately unsustainable laboratory for new musicals, the Prince has now risen from the ashes yet again, with new backers and a new attitude. The older-skewing cabaret series in the upstairs, 150-seat black-box theater is a holdover, with sure shots like Patti LuPone and Steve Tyrell coming in. But downstairs, in the main, now-446-seat theater, we're sensing a serious attitude adjustment, aimed to lure in younger pop-culture mavens with properties like the recently landed spooky spoof "Evil Dead-the Musical" and an upcoming (Nov. 1) one-nighter with Kevin Smith and Ralph Garman, "Hollywood Babble On. "

The layout: Besides an expensive digital-cinema upgrade for film-festival screenings, new bucks have been invested in seating, carpeting and curtained wall treatments. The room still proved sonically problematic for the Canadian production team running "Evil Dead." A preview of the 3-D space thriller "Gravity" fared better, sound-wise, though we're thinking a re-plastering of exposed brick walls (sorry) and more speakers down front should be high-priority items.

Amenities: The theater is seconds away from subways and a four-minute walk from Suburban Station. Lots of reasonably priced food options should also make for a full night out.

SEI Innovation Studio at the Kimmel Center

Broad and Spruce streets

Backstory/Front Story: While it's been around as long (2001) as Verizon Hall and the Perelman, this black box theater in the bowels of the Kimmel Center is virtually a state secret -- difficult to find and hardly used. That's about to change.

The layout: A spartan concrete staircase and Kimmel lobby elevator lead visitors down to the 2,688-square-foot, black-walled room, which the Kimmel has pitched mostly for private-party use. Hey, you can do a lot with flowers and table linen.

But last weekend the space was set up with a stage and 200 seats -- lower ones in front, bar stool height to the rear -- for a road testing of comedienne Lisa Lampanelli's one woman "Skinny Bitch" show.

The set-up was "perfect," she said afterward. And Kimmel Center theater booker Matt Wolf hinted from the stage that "big things" are planned for Innovation -- with an official "reveal" next month.

With support from SEI Investments (a wealth-management company, in Oaks), the theater is now getting its own glass-walled entrance on Spruce Street -- visibility at last! -- and soon a major interior makeover, with rotating art work loaned from SEI chairman Al West's personal collection. The arts complex's Showcase program book also hints that "a re-envisioned SEI Innovation Studio will soon house cutting-edge programming, underground residencies and more ."

Amenities: "Iron Chef" Jose Garces is the culinary partner for Volver, a restaurant with "performance kitchen" now taking form in the Kimmel Center immediately adjacent to SEI Innovation Studio's new entrance.

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(c)2013 the Philadelphia Daily News

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