History of the Lansdowne Theater
At the turn of the 20th century Lansdowne’s commercial district was largely limited to the corners of Lansdowne and Baltimore Avenues, with a concentration of shops on the south side of Baltimore Avenue running to the railroad tracks. As the population in Lansdowne increased, so did the business district. By the 1920s, the district had begun to expand north on Lansdowne Avenue, and in the mid 1920s, Blanchepierre, the home of local attorney Francis Taylor, was demolished to make way the largest and grandest building in the commercial district, The Lansdowne Theater.
The Stanley Warner Company and Herbert Effinger commissioned renowned and prolific theater architect William H. Lee to design a 1358-seat movie theater. Based in Philadelphia, Lee designed more than 80 movie houses one as far away as Hawaii. Designed in the Hollywood Moorish style, the $250,000 theater opened just before the advent of the “talkies” and harkens to the days of romantic silent films. Visitors moved through the front doors, up an incline, and into a Moorish style courtyard with fountains at each end. Large lighting fixtures hung in the lobby, which opened to the grand auditorium. With its elaborately painted ceiling, grand chandelier,balconies, and large proscenium, the theater is a feast for the eyes.
The Lansdowne Theater opened on June 1, 1927, featuring the silent film “Knockout Riley” starring Richard Dix. The opening event was overseen by John J. McGuirk, president of the Stanley Company. Mr. McGuirk described The Lansdowne as “the best example of suburban theatre construction around Philadelphia.” Adding to the excitement of the day was an appearance by Miss Lansdowne, who flew over the theater in a biplane, dropping roses to the audience below. (That year Miss Lansdowne happened to be an exchange student from Sweden.) Films were shown Monday through Saturday at 2:30, 7:00, and 9:00 p.m. Ticket prices ranged from 15¢ to 35¢.
The Lansdowne Theater with its original "blade sign" in 1929.
The Harrison Brothers Construction built the theater as well as several other buildings in the neighborhood. When the building opened in 1927, first floor retail tenants included local resident and florist William Leonard, Lansdowne Bootery, Crowley Furniture Company, and a tailor. A few years later the Harrison Brothers would assume control of the theater from Stanley Warner Equity and leased it to various operators into the 1960s.
Many people remember the famous Lansdowne Theater organ which originally accompanied silent movies and then was played nightly before shows and during special events. The organ was manufactured by the W.W. Kimball Co. of Chicago at a cost of $20,000 and was the last to be installed in a theater in the Philadelphia region. According to a number of newspaper accounts, the organ was silenced in 1937 and sat under a tarpaulin in front of the theater’s orchestra pit until the early 1960s when area residents Bill Greenwood, W.E. Stinger, Jr., and W. Crawford undertook a restoration of the instrument. After sitting idle for 25 years the organ returned to service on February 24, 1963. Volunteer theater organists from throughout the Philadelphia area played a 15 minute concert the organ nightly before every show. The organ, known as a “band’ organ operated a host of additional musical instruments kept in the small balconies on either side of the stage: two xylophones, a marimba, a metal harp, a glockenspiel, chimes, drums, cymbals, tambourines, castanets and triangles among others. The organ could also could produce silent movie effects including birds, a fire gong, car horns, sirens, sleigh bells, police whistle, and wood blocks that simulated the sound of galloping horses. The last major concert featuring the organ was held on November 18, 1975, with Radio City organist James Paulin at the keyboard. The organ was sold to Bill Greenwood and removed from the theater in the late 1970s. The organ changed ownership several times and is now in storage in the Southwest.
While the theater was primarily a movie house, it did host live performances on its stage. On the first anniversary of the theater’s opening Lansdowne’s Albert Clinton Wunderlich American Legion Post 65 Youth Bugle Corps performed on stage. Through the years there would be other well-known entertainers from throughout the Philadelphia area including the well-known Bobby Heath a songwriter, lyricist and orchestra leader performed before a sold out audience. On September 7, 1980 Harry Chapin performed at a benefit concert for Congressman Bob Edgar at The Lansdowne.
The offices on the second floor of the theater served as the offices of a number of healthcare professionals over the years including longtime Lansdowne dentist Dr. Murray and Dr. A. Singer, optometrist. In the 1980s, Len Cella, a house painter from Broomall, constructed an 80 seat screening room on the second floor of the theater building. Mr. Cella produced the very cleaver “Moron Movies” which were later shown on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.”
Sara Gail, who managed the theater on behalf of the Harrison family previously, purchased the theater in 1979 and operated it until 1986. In 1986, it was sold to the Lansdowne Theatre Associates, Inc. which was led by Philadelphia attorney and Lansdowne resident Jerry Raff, who closed the theater for much of 1986 to complete largely cosmetic renovations. On July 3, 1987, during a showing of Beverly Hill Cops II, an electrical fire broke out in the basement of one of the building’s retail stores. The 100 patrons were safely evacuated from the theater, but significant damage had been done to the electrical system that serviced the auditorium. Raff and his partners continued to make repairs, but the project was never able to regain a financial footing. Ownership was assumed by Bell Savings and Loan in 1989 which had extended financing for the project. Bell Savings and Loan was taken over by the Resolution Trust Corporation in 1991. The building was purchased at auction by 29-37 North Lansdowne, Inc. The corporation made repairs to the retail and office spaces and hoped to restore and reopen the theater.
There have been a number of individuals and organizations that have sought to purchase and restore the theater over the past 20 years. One organization, the Lansdowne Center for the Performing Arts offered performing arts education programming in the second floor screening room. The HLTC is grateful to all of these people and organizations who have helped to keep the goal of reopening theater alive.
Recognizing the theater’s historical and architectural significance and its potential to serve as a major catalyst for the reinvigoration of Lansdowne’s Central Business District, the Greater Lansdowne Civic Association and the Lansdowne Economic Development Corporation established the non-profit HLTC to purchase, stabilize, and restore the theater in pursuit of the dream of reopening The Lansdowne. Using a grant secured from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development through the leadership of State Representative Nicholas Micozzie (Retired), the HLTC purchased the building in 2007. Thus far, much-needed repairs to the roof have been made, a fire detection system has been installed throughout, obsolete and unused mechanical systems have been removed, second floor offices have been renovated, and retail stores have been brought into compliance with building codes.
In recognition of the historical and architectural significance of the building, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.
The movies come to Lansdowne
While The Lansdowne has not shown a movie since 1987, it has shown up in the movies and on television in the last couple of years. The most notable, "Silver Linings Playbook" was shot in front of the theater in 2011. Jennifer Lawrence, who won an Oscar in 2012 for her role in the film, and Bradley Cooper have a confrontation under the marquee on Halloween Night. Cooper also runs past the theater several times. In the DVD extras, the making of the film features numerous scenes shot at The Lansdowne. During the shooting, the support staff was stationed in the Regency Cafe while extras were housed in Cinema 16:9, now Vinyl Revival. Lansdowne Avenue, Baltimore to LaCrosse Avenue were closed off with trailers scattered throughout the surrounding neighborhood. See the trailer here.
In 2014, Boston-based filmmaker Peter Flynn chose to include The Lansdowne in his documentary "The Dying of the Light." The film details the history of film projection from the perspective of the projectionist and chronicles the shift of film exhibition to digital projection. In the film,The Lansdowne's carbon arch projectors are made operable and turned on for the first time in 27 years. The film premiered at NYC Doc, the New York Documentary Film Festival and was named one of the best of the festival. See the trailer here.
The theater appeared in the commercials for AMC's 2012 "Fearfest." See the commercials here. In 2015, The Lansdowne was the subject of Toyko Television's production "Vacations at Abandoned Places."
In 1893, the same year the borough was incorporated, a group of 15 residents formed a local chapter of the Pennsylvania Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. The members, known as “White Ribboners,” successfully lobbied the borough government to forbid alcohol from being sold in the borough and in later years movies from being screened on Sundays.
Movies came to Lansdowne in 1912 when the Twentieth Century Club rented their clubhouse, known as Century Hall (today simply known as the Twentieth Century Club), to a film presenter who exhibited films on Thursday nights. The income generated from the ticket sales was used to pay off the mortgage on the building and to support the many activities of the club. The projector was contained in a portable asbestos projection booth, with films being shown in the main auditorium. After The Lansdowne opened in 1927, the Twentieth Century Club members worked with the operator of the theater to select films for the Saturday morning matinees.
Lansdowne has been the home of two Academy Award winners. David Goodman, a current resident of the borough, received the Academy Award for his 1985 documentary “Witness to War: Dr. Charlie Clements.” He is currently working on two new documentaries. David credits The Lansdowne as the place where his interest in cinema began.
Jack Eaton (1888-1968), the son of Seymour Eaton, the originator of the popular “Roosevelt Bears” comics and books, was raised at the mansion known as Athdara on South Lansdowne Avenue. He served as producer on 78 films and as director on 38 films between 1918 and 1953. He was nominated for five Oscars in his career and won the Academy Award in 1949 for his short film “Aquatic House Party.”
Raised in Lansdowne during the 1920s, Henry Leroy Willson (1911-1978) played a significant role in Hollywood. After college, he wrote a weekly gossip column for Variety. Later he wrote for the staff ofPhotoplay, The Hollywood Writer, and The New Movie Magazine. He then went on to become a movie agent, representing some of Hollywood’s best known actors and actresses, including Lana Turner, Tab Hunter, and Rock Hudson. Willson had a knack for renaming actors, and it he who renamed Roy Fitzgerald “Rock Hudson.” It was widely known that Willson, who was gay, represented gay actors who passed as straight. He often sought to dispel rumors about actors being gay, going as far to have Rock Hudson marry his secretary.