Save the Boyd? Not likely now
WHEN I GOT off the elevator to the 18th floor yesterday, lawyer Matthew N. McClure of Ballard Spahr was already in full-throated passion explaining to the Philadelphia Historical Commission's hardship committee why the shuttered Boyd Theatre at 19th and Chestnut is not worth saving.
I arrived on the gray-carpeted top floor at 16th and Arch just in time to hear McClure suggest that Caroline E. Boyce, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, and her predecessor, John Andrew Gallery, were just trying to delay an inevitable outcome.
Seated at the end of a table facing the panel of five women and three men, with City Hall looming through venetian blinds to his right, McClure ended his peroration by reading the entire Daily News editorial of Jan. 30, smugly climaxing with these words:
As tantalizing as it is, the dream of a Boyd restored to its former glory is not going to come to pass. It is time to let go.
With that, hardship committee chairman Sam Sherman Jr., having patiently endured the hardship of yet another regurgitation of reasons to support the Boyd's demise, said: "Yes, we all read the editorial. Thank you very much."
McClure gathered his documents and his legal briefcase and returned to his seat in the front row. Behind him, 60 people sat on maroon plastic chairs, many wearing black T-shirts that read, "SAVE THE BOYD - PHILLY'S LAST MOVIE PALACE."
For many of them it was a workday, although their time may not be as valuable as that of McClure, who counsels developers and formerly worked for the U.S. Conference of Mayors and for Ed Rendell when he was mayor.
In any case, after 2 1/2 hours, the hardship committee sided with McClure, voting to recommend approval of the financial-hardship application by the building's owner. Now almost nothing stands in the way of a Historical Commission vote to let a Florida firm demolish the 2,450-seat art-deco theater and replace it with an eight-screen multiplex.
For Jay Schwartz, who was among those seated behind McClure yesterday, that would be a tragedy. Schwartz, who works for a Center City law firm, has been screening obscure films all over Philadelphia for decades under the aegis of his Secret Cinema.
"To see a restored film in a restored theater is a magical experience that tells us much about where we came from," he said. "I'm always jealous that Philadelphia has not yet saved one movie palace, while New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Pittsburgh, New Brunswick, Hershey, Saginaw, [Mich.] - it seems almost every city, richer or poorer than Philly, has saved one or more."
I've seen it myself. Last month, I traveled to Atlanta for a star-studded tribute to rock musician Gregg Allman at the Fox Theatre, a sumptuous mosque-style concert hall with trompe l'oeil art that gives the impression you're outdoors under the night sky.
With a seating capacity of 4,678, the Fox is almost twice the size of the Boyd. Like the Boyd, which opened in 1928, it began as a movie palace, opening on Christmas Day in 1929. For two decades, the Metropolitan Opera visited for a week every spring.
And like the Boyd, which closed in 2002, the Fox faced doom in 1974 when Southern Bell planned to raze the building and erect a regional headquarters.
At that point, Atlanta's citizens rose up, creating a nonprofit and a successful "Save The Fox" campaign - a victory of the black-T-shirt-wearers over the powerful developers. Today, the Fox has more than 250 shows a year.
"Saving the Fox truly was a community achievement, a journey of a thousand small steps," the Fox website says. "Of the $3 million raised, no single donation was over $100,000; the vast majority of the fund was made up of small personal donations from Atlanta residents."
During yesterday's meeting, some of the people in the maroon plastic chairs were nodding off. I don't know if they have the strength to mount one final battle to save the Boyd, or if a Jay Schwartz has any clout next to a Matthew N. McClure.
But hardship can be a great motivator, and our city might just benefit from the exercise.
On Twitter: @DavidLeePreston