Saving the Historic Roxy Theater During Pandemic

There’s so much history and nostalgia in the old-time movie theaters. Few and far between, there’s one such treasure where the lights on the marquee still shine brightly, at least for now. There’s quite a story of survival to tell for the Roxy Theatre in Northampton PA thanks to one man who is keeping the projectors rolling. Rick Wolfe has been the front and back of house, and everything in between, for 50 of Roxy’s almost 100 years. When most theaters have gone dark in this pandemic, he’s finding ways to save his labor of love to preserve this treasured Lehigh Valley gem.

“I always was fascinated as a youth going to the movies at the big old downtown movie palaces,”. And that’s exactly why Rick bought the Roxy back in 1970. “I was 21 at the time I took over this theater,”.

Originally a Vaudeville theater, Rick W. has been restoring this tiny jewel box to its former Art Deco glory. “Going to the theater was a very unique experience, it was special because the theaters were so grand and so opulent,” he explains. He started the Roxy’s resurrection with the marquee. “There’s 700 and some bulbs on that marquee. Thirty-eight of them lit up when it was turned on and it didn’t even look like it was on,”.

Rick said “I’m the manager, the projectionist and on some days, also the ticket taker, Right now I’m everything!”

The Show Will Go On

The Roxy is etched in history as the longest-running dollar theater in America. Currently $3 a ticket, like other venues, 2020 has left it in the dark. Rick had to get creative to keep the theater from shuttering. He started renting it out for smaller, intimate screening parties. “A birthday party, anniversary or just the family,” he says, can be celebrated there, within Covid-19 guidelines and regulations. “People asked me if they could put a message up on the marquee,” he says, adding that you can get your name in lights. At 71 years young, Rick has no plans to part with the Roxy. “I have no interest in retiring at this point. As long as I’m healthy, what else would I do?” he says. After all, it’s been 50 wonderful years and counting. The Roxy turns 100 next year. Rick says he’s doing everything he can to meet that milestone and hopefully celebrate with the big bash it deserves.

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Halloween Movie Memorabilia

Get your favorite Halloween movie memorabilia posters t-shirts and more.

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Bucks County Drive-In

Bucks-County-Drive-In-SignThe Bucks County Drive-In opened in 1951. This drive-in closed in 1998 and has been demolished. A shopping center has replaced this former drive-in. It was located at 401 Easton Road, Warrington, PA 18976 had two screens and could accommodate 750 cars that’s a lot of people if you use to pack them in the way we did. This was a popular destination in the Philadelphia area for many many years and as far as we know was one of the last operating Drive ins in Pennsylvania.

Bucks-County-Drive-In-AriealDrive In History

Richard Hollingshead, father of the drive-in, capitalized on the success of the drive-in restaurant, extending the in-your-car-convenience to include the silver screen. He patented the idea three years after conception. The first drive-in opened in Camden, NJ in June 1933.

The mid-forties saw the roaming buffeterias answer to frustrated movie-goers who wished to stay in their cars and not miss any of the movie or stand in long lines during intermission. The dawn of the fifties brought the talk back system. Starting in Greensboro, NC movie-goers pushed a button on the side of the speaker to be connected to the main switch board, indirectly summoning car-hops. The profiteria (centrally located self-serve snack bar) eventually won out over car-hop service. Conventional drive-in hey day was 1948-1954, when the count rises from 820 to 3,775.

In the 1970s, many drive-ins began to close. However, most drive-ins were still making money when they closed. Closings were primarily due to the fact that as cities spread out, property value sky-rocketed. Location, combined with seasonality, is often cited as the biggest problem to face drive-ins. Standard fare at the drive-in was 2nd-run movies or 1st-run sexploitation films during this decade.

Bucks-County-Drive-In-Sign2In the 1980s, Hollywood studios started to make double and triple prints of 1st-run movies, as a result, drive-ins were able to start picking up 1st-run films. Between 1987-1990, the number of drive-ins falls from 2,507 to 910. Drive-in attendance drops off by two thirds.

By the 1990s, there are less than 600 drive-ins left in the US. There were 815 screens total, as of December 1997. Over 3,000 had disappeared since their hey day in the 1950s. On the bright side in this decade, several new drive-ins have been built circa 1990, including sites in New York and Alabama. Drive-in expansion occurs in several states including Wisconsin and Maryland.

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Still Filling Seats at the Devon

Devon Theater MayfairThough Mayfair’s Devon Theater on Frankford Avenue was forced to cancel its first theatrical production season midway through due to budget cuts, the theater’s productions otherwise seem to be thriving.

Mike Votel, 23, a bar manager at the theater, said a Rolling Stones tribute concert in the end of February sold out quickly — all 400 seats in the theater, plus an additional 50 upstairs seats were sold.

Votel said the theater tries to keep ticket prices reasonable despite its need for funds, and the tickets for that particular concert were $20 apiece.

Though the Mayfair native says he’s attached to the neighborhood and especially to the Devon — he began working there shortly after it reopened after renovations a few years ago — he plans to move to California soon to pursue a career in the film industry.

He said the Devon and the neighborhood have both come a long way.

“Mayfair is a really great place in Philly,” the 2008 Temple graduate said. “Entertainment and art is something that’s really here. This can bring people out.”

Morgan Zalot and Stephen Zook, Group 20, Northeast Philadelphia

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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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Staying alive at the Devon theater

Devon Theater MayfairAs if the round, flashing marquee lights, the tiny street-side box office, the freshly popped popcorn aroma and the giant curtain covering a 30-foot-wide screen aren’t enough to convince you . . . then the bigger-than-life images of the immortal Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh should certainly give it away.

Built in 1946, the Devon is the oldest movie theater in Philadelphia — maybe not in years, but certainly in memories. The Devon, at the corner of Frankford Avenue and Stirling Street in Mayfair, has all of the aforementioned qualities.

It is still a single-screen neighborhood theater. And it’s still a great place to take your wife, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend or kids to see a picture, just like folks did in the old days, the Golden Days, of Hollywood. At four bucks for a ticket, the prices should remind everyone of . . . well, maybe not the old days, but certainly these days when the multiplexes charge a whole lot more.

After decades on the decline, the Devon is now operated by a local businessman and lifelong movie buff. And it’s showing.

Gene Denicolo, 71, dumped tens of thousands of dollars of his own cash into the theater after taking out a lease late last year and saving the Devon from a likely death. Denicolo cleaned the place up, made it more customer friendly and re-established the pipeline of popular second-run movies upon which the place built its reputation.

In its first six months, the resurrected Devon has shown signs of coming out of its economical funk, but it still isn’t a moneymaker. Not one to give up without a fight, Denicolo is now shifting gears.

From Day One, he’s been selling old-time theater. Now he’s offering the full effect. Last week, Denicolo brought the 1939 Oscar-winning classic Gone With the Wind to the Devon’s big screen. In the coming months, he’s planning on showing films like Casablanca, Key Largo, White Heat, The Godfather and even Rocky.

He’ll continue to work new films into the schedule, such as the current selection, Gladiator, as well as the upcoming Mission Impossible 2 and Gone in 60 Seconds. But he’ll only show the good ones. When the inevitable stinkers come rolling down the pike, he’ll opt for a classic instead.

First impressions of the concept during last week’s Gone With the Wind run were positive.

frankly, my dear, he gives a darn

“I started with Gone With the Wind,” Denicolo said. “I figured, let me start with the best of them. So far, it ain’t doing bad. It’s doing mediocre to good . . . as good as the new stuff I’ve had.”

“I’m glad something like this is still in the city,” said Len Ives of Bridesburg, who made the short trip to the Devon last Wednesday night. “It’s hard to compare old movies to new movies. The old ones were made more for quality. The new ones are made more to bowl people over with special effects.”

Another word that Ives used in describing the classic films was “imagination.” The old movies called upon the viewer to use imagination more than modern movies do, Ives explained.

Denicolo is hoping that area residents start imagining how much fun they can have at his nostalgic theater, and that they start acting on those thoughts soon. After all, Denicolo’s resources can’t keep the theater going forever. There has to be a profit.

“My nut here is twenty-five hundred (dollars) a week,” he said. “If I take in fifteen (hundred), I’m counting, but I’m not counting enough. That’s when I argue with my booking agents.

“If I say, ‘That show got me fifteen hundred or eighteen hundred,’ they say ‘That’s good.’ Then I say, ‘Maybe that’s good the way you count, but not the way I count.'”

Although the chain multi-screen theaters have essentially cornered the movie market these days, Denicolo says he doesn’t pay attention to what they make on particular films.

“All I’m concerned about is what I’ve got here,” he said.

lot of stuff to do, not enough money

There’s a lot to be concerned about. Basically, it’s a three-person operation with Denicolo, his life partner, Dolores Venneri, and his daughter Charlotte Gasperi.

At movie time, one will generally work the box office, one will take tickets at the door, and one will work the concession stand in the rear of the theater. Part-timers are hired to run the projectors. But if something breaks down or someone fails to show, the buck stops with Denicolo.

The bucks, in fact, consistently seem to stop him from doing the things he wants to generate more interest in the Devon, whether it’s cash for better promotion, for physical improvements to the theater, or for exorbitant movie-rights fees.

“If I had more bucks, more money, I’d exploit myself more,” Denicolo said. “I’m a firm believer that you have to advertise yourself.”

Denicolo figures he’d have a natural hit if he could afford to promote his idea for double features aggressively.

“The double feature, that was common back in my day,” he said. “You would see two good shows. You would get the news of the day and cartoons. You would be giving kids a four-hour show. Now, they get you in and out so fast, mothers don’t even get a chance to drop off their kids and do something else for a while.”

Denicolo has not finalized plans for a double-feature show, but he figures on showing two classic films along with still-available Three Stooges and Laurel and Hardy shorts. “It gives you a day out. You get to see it on a big screen again,” he said. “It’s thirty feet wide instead of thirty inches.”

If nothing else, Denicolo figures, local people should patronize the Devon out of fondness and nostalgia for a simpler, happier, bygone era.

“It’s a landmark,” he said, “the last neighborhood theater in the city of Philadelphia. And I’m just a little family guy trying to do something family-oriented for the neighborhood.”

By William Kenny
Times Staff Writer

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