Devon Theater Reopens in Mayfair

A Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood gets an obscenity-free theater.

Northeast Philadelphia may not be known for a large arts scene, but a new addition to the Mayfair

Devon Theater Grand Reopening neighborhood is about to change that perception. Along Frankford Avenue, the Mayfair Community Development Corporation (CDC) has embarked on a multimillion dollar revitalization project anchored by the renovation of the old Devon Theater.

Built in 1946 as a single-screen cinema, the Devon has been transformed into a dazzling new multipurpose facility specializing in live theater.

A landmark in the neighborhood, the Devon initially showed first-run movies, but switched to adult films in the late 1970s, a move that caused considerable consternation among the neighborhood’s mostly Irish-Catholic community. (It became known as “the dirty Devon,” remembers Mike Lally, who grew up in the neighborhood and is now the theater’s general manager.) After a stint showing second- run films, the Devon closed and sat vacant for more than a decade.

Lally says the prospect of live arts in Mayfair has been met with “overwhelming support from the neighborhood. There has always been a strong theater community in the area, but they’ve previously had to go to Bristol or Center City to see a show.”

The renewal of the Devon is the result of a unique partnership between the nonprofit Mayfair CDC and Fuse Management, a for-profit company that produces theater and special events. The CDC (which had the original vision for the project) owns the building while Fuse is responsible for the theater’s design and technical capabilities as well as daily operations, stage productions and educational programs.

The total cost of the revitalization project is $6.5 million, which breaks down to $4.4 million for the renovation of the Devon and another $2.1 million for the streetscape project, which will begin this summer and run along Frankford Avenue from Harbison to Cottman.

Both grand and surprisingly intimate, each of the theater’s 400 seats has its own cup holder. The second level has exposed brick and includes a comfortable 18-seat balcony that comes with a separate lobby, concession area and bathrooms. A state-of-the-art sound system features speakers tucked beneath the stage.

The artistic responsibilities fall to Michael Pickering, the Devon’s new artistic director. Pickering says he and his wife Amy (who is the theater’s educational director) were attracted to the idea of bringing live performance to the area.

“Coming from a theatrical background, my wife and I know the value of the arts. To be able to be a part of bringing that type of cultural experience to a community is thrilling,” he says.

The risks of opening a theater in a struggling economy would appear to be great, but Pickering doesn’t see it that way. “You have to be innovative in this economy,” he explains.

Whereas many arts organizations that rely primarily on grants and donations for their funding are struggling, Pickering says, Fuse takes a business approach to the arts. “It’s about bringing artistic enrichment to the community but doing it in such a way that it’s affordable to our patrons but also profitable.”

Fuse plans on producing a five-show theater season at the Devon as well as presenting outside acts produced by local and national artists. Pickering says the Devon will also be available for rentals and will occasionally show films.

Both Lally and Pickering are keenly aware that their core audience will draw from among the many families in the area. Pickering says that the theater (which operates under an agreement with Actors’ Equity) will occasionally challenge its audience, but not with plays featuring excessive profanity.

“What you won’t see here is anything we would have to put up a parental advisory for,” he says. “That doesn’t mean we won’t do cutting-edge drama, but it won’t be cutting-edge with obscenities.”

In keeping with its mission of presenting family-friendly fare, the Devon opened with Pickering’s staging of the popular musical comedy Nunsense. Unapologetically silly and upbeat, the story focuses on a group of nuns who stage a variety show to raise funds for the burial expenses of 52 fellow sisters who were accidently poisoned.

By J. Cooper Robb
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