85 years of drama at the Sedgwick Theater in Mt. Airy

Local Life August 23, 2013 3 Comments

(Left) This photo of the Sedgwick Theater exterior was taken about 80 years ago, not long after it opened to the public as a movie theater in 1928. (Right) The exterior of the Sedgwick Theater has not changed much over the last 85 years.

by Len Lear

As I was doing one of my periodic basement prunings last week, fingering through the thousands of folders full of newspaper and magazine clippings, my own and others, that I have accumulated over 46 years as a local newspaper reporter/editor, I came across this vintage photo of the Sedgwick Theater at 7137 Germantown Ave.

I do not recall the reason for the photo or how I obtained it, but an attached note said it was from the early 1930s. The cars in the photo look like those that were driven by mobsters in the Al Capone era, and I doubt if you’d see anyone today on Germantown Avenue wearing farmers’ overalls and suspenders.

Since I attended movies at the Sedgwick Theater in the 1950s, I do have a sentimental attachment to the spectacular Art Deco movie palace, and I’m sure many other long-time area residents have a similar attachment. Therefore, I decided to look up the history of the theater, and here is what I found on Wikipedia:

(By the way, apparently no one on earth knows the identity of the person for whom Sedgwick Theater — or Sedgwick Street — was named. I tried for about 45 minutes checking with numerous websites that claim to answer any factual question. I visited ask.com, webcrawler.com, info.com, wikianswers.com, about.com, askpedia.com and a few others. Not one could supply the name of the person for whom the Sedgwick Theater and Sedgwick Street were named. I also consulted a book, “Street Names of Philadelphia,” by Robert Alotta {Temple University Press, 1975}, which has 154 pages on the origin of hundreds of Philly street names, but NOT Sedgwick Street.)

The Sedgwick Theater is a historic American theater built in Mt. Airy. It was built in 1928 and designed by architect William Harold Lee. It is one of the remaining 20 Philadelphia theaters as of 2006 that he designed; nine have been demolished. Only two in Philadelphia are open: The Ace Theater (Holiday Art Theater), 4204-12 Kensington Ave., now owned by a Brooklyn company and in recent years used as a porno film house, and The Sedgwick Theater. Just outside Philadelphia, two more of Lee’s theaters have been restored: the Bryn Mawr Theater and the Hiway Theater in Jenkintown.

The Sedgwick Theater was designed in the 1920s Art Deco style and built during a movie revolution with the advent of sync sound and showed silent films as well as talkies. This perhaps explains the theater’s design including a stage for live performance, as well as its large single screen.

The Sedgwick was designed to include a balcony, but shortly before construction the balcony was removed from the plans. (A balcony would likely have increased seating to 2000.) This accounts for its amazing vaulted ceilings. When entering the theater, you would get your ticket at the ticket booth, into a rectangular lobby space.

This led to a larger oval lobby where you could check your coats. The men’s room and women’s room were on opposing ends of the lobby. The oval lobby was a pivot point of the design, and the actual theater’s footprint traveled back and to the left of the lot from that point. Entering the theater through five large archways, the rake of the seats dropped about 15 feet to the screen.

The Sedgwick Theater opened in 1928 and remained in operation until 1966. When it closed in 1966, it was purchased for use as a warehouse. The theater building was split in two. A cinderblock wall was constructed closing off the theater space from the lobbies.

The theater was stripped of its seats and the rake, leaving a gutted box in the back. The ceiling of the theater was left somewhat intact, and a beautiful Art Deco ceiling medallion still exists. Part of the proscenium arch is also still intact.

When the building was purchased by David and Betty Ann Fellner, there had already been significant damage done to the building. They set up the Sedgwick Cultural Center, a not-for-profit organization, in 1995. The Sedgwick Cultural Center’s mission was to build community through the arts. A stage was constructed in the Oval Lobby, and performances have taken place in that space ever since.

However, by 2006, despite having brought the Philadelphia community wonderful programming for 10 years, little had changed to repair the Sedgwick Theater. The price tag for a complete building restoration has been suggested to be $10 to $12 million, which does not include the cost to create a business in the space which could truly make the Sedgwick self-sustaining.

The inner lobbies were on occasion home to “Films at the Sedgwick,” which screened public domain films and created an interactive website for the community to take control of the programming. Film Q Public was a list of films up for the community to consider screening. Each film had a plot summary and a streaming movie trailer (when available). Users voted for the films they wanted to see. Those votes were tallied and once the film received enough votes, that film is scheduled.

In May 2010, the Quintessence Theatre Group began renting the Sedgwick for a Shakespeare repertory troupe. Quintessence and its founding director Alexander Burns have staged many classic plays by Shakespeare, Sophocles, Moliere, Oscar Wilde, Chekhov, etc., ever since, and most have been favorably reviewed.

More information at 215-240-6055 or QuintessenceTheatre.org

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  • David T. Moore

    In
    answer to Len Lear’s question as to the derivation of “Sedgwick” for the
    Mt. Airy street, theatre, etc., it is part of the story of the Tourison
    family of Mt. Airy. The first Ashton Tourison was an Army officer in
    both the Mexican and Civil Wars, being wounded at Gettysburg, where his
    son, William, was killed. Another son, Ashton, became a contractor and
    developer in Mt. Airy. When Charlotte Lovett Bostwick began selling off
    parcels of the Lovett property (receipts of which contributed to the
    endowment fund of Lovett Memorial Library) a new street was cut through
    the old estate. Tourison built the first house for himself, naming the
    street for Civil War General John Sedgwick. The first of his children
    born in the house at 32 East Sedgwick was a son, who was named Sedgwick,
    who entered the family business. The Tourisons developed much of the
    land east of the library towards Stenton Avenue, calling it “Sedgwick
    Farms” and naming several streets for Civil War-era figures (Anderson,
    Crittenden). Sedgwick Tourison built the theatre (Sedgwick), as well as
    the building at 7200 Germantown Avenue (Tourison Building). In the
    1950s, the corner store the McKnight family ran where Earth Bread and
    Brewery is now was called the Sedgwick Delicatessen; the dry cleaner
    where Umbria is now was called the Sedgwick Cleaners. About 1985, when
    he was 100 years old, I had two wonderful talks about neighborhood
    history with Mr. Sedgwick Tourison, after reading about him in an
    article in the Local.

  • John T. Donovan

    That’s great stuff, David (and Len). I knew that Tourison had a son named Sedgwick and thought that is where the name came from. The real story is (and always is) much more interesting.

  • Andy

    Thank you for sharing this great story. I would be interested in finding out more about the Tourisons, as I am the current resident of the Sedgwick Street home. I have the blueprints from a 1911 renovation; the architect is Bart Tourison, whom I’m assuming is another son.