Staging a comeback: Inner-ring town counting on a theater

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Matthew Schultz, executive director of the historic Lansdowne Theater Corp., hopes the 1300-seat venue will be restored to a concert performance venue.

Its paint is chipped. Its elaborately decorated walls are cracked. And its marble ticket booth has not been used in nearly 30 years.

But the Lansdowne Theater is more than a reminder of the borough's past, according to those working to save it; it's also the key to its future.

A nonprofit group that bought the 1920s-era theater in 2007 is raising money to restore and reopen it as a concert venue. The group will take two important steps toward its goal in the spring, as it restores the outdoor lobby of the theater and asks Lansdowne voters for a liquor license.

Supporters and Lansdowne officials say a reopened theater could attract visitors and economic development to the Delaware County community of 10,000 residents.

"This town is hanging on by its fingernails as an inner-ring suburb," said Mollie Repetto, a former borough mayor and a board member of the Historic Lansdowne Theater Corp. "We need people outside Lansdowne to know about us and come."

The Lansdowne Theater opened in 1927 to screen silent films, operated as a movie theater until 1987, and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. As other towns' theaters were demolished or repurposed, the Lansdowne building sat vacant.

"It's almost . . . the elephant in the room," said Robert Jara, a corporation board member. "You drive down Lansdowne Avenue and what do you see? The biggest building there."

The theater marquee was relighted in 2012, the offices above it have been leased, and the remodeled storefronts on either side of its entrance now house a coffee shop and vinyl-record store.

Matthew Schultz, executive director of the nonprofit group and a longtime Lansdowne resident, is still working to raise money to complete the approximately $9 million project.

With the help of a $153,000 grant through the county, work will begin in the next several weeks to restore the building's outdoor lobby, which made an appearance in the 2012 film Silver Linings Playbook.

Although it is a small part of the overall renovations, that work will give new life to the theater's exterior by restoring its aging poster cases, returning the chipped pink stucco to its original buff color, and refurbishing the marble ticket booth.

The theater's supporters began collecting signatures on a petition last month to place a referendum for a liquor license on the May primary ballot. Lansdowne is a dry borough, and the liquor license would apply only to the theater.

Once theater renovations are complete, Schultz said, the nonprofit would work with a concert promoter to book classic-rock and singer-songwriter acts. The space would also be leased to local performing arts groups and the William Penn School District, which lacks a large auditorium.

Schultz said the project could serve as an anchor to attract other business to the borough, which now has many rundown and empty storefronts along Baltimore Pike.

The town's median household income is about $58,000, according to the Nielsen/Claritas service, roughly in the middle among Delaware County towns. In 2013, the last year for which state figures were available, the median home price was $110,000. Because Lansdowne is in the William Penn district, real estate taxes are among the highest in the region.

"The reopening of the Lansdowne does not solve all the issues in Lansdowne," Schultz said. "But we believe that it's one of many slices of a pie that, if it comes to fruition, then Lansdowne changes in a positive way."

The theater's reopening could be at least two years away; Schultz said he needed to raise at least $2 million to match $4 million in committed state funding.

Work would include restoring the intricately painted walls and ceiling, making the stage large enough for a band, building a rear addition for a backstage area, and adding more restrooms to the 1,300-seat theater.

Officials, residents, and business owners in Lansdowne are eager to see the theater restored.

Some restaurants and shops have opened in recent years on Lansdowne Avenue near the theater, in the borough's central business district.

"Having a theater will just make it even better," said Mayor Tony Campuzano.

He remembered seeing movies at the theater, which long served as a central gathering place for locals. But the planned music venue would serve an even greater purpose, he said, bringing outside visitors to "the center point of our town."

That potential persuaded Laura Frangiosa to open the Avenue Deli next to the theater in 2013.

She had wanted to open a restaurant in a trendy Philadelphia neighborhood. So she and her husband, Joshua Skaroff, were skeptical when business partner Brian Flounders suggested a building in Lansdowne, where he grew up.

"We came out and we saw the location and I was like, this is way off the beaten path, this is not the right thing," Frangiosa said.

Her opinion began to change when Schultz gave them a tour of the theater.

"We were totally blown away by what it was and what it looked like," Frangiosa said, "and its potential."

 


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