Historic Lansdowne Theater
Although it was forgotten for years, the Historic Lansdowne Theater was once a center for social life in the Delaware County. As you enter the exotic building, you are taken back to a time of black and white films, when drama was unaccompanied by words and soundtracks came from a live orchestra.
The dignity of the building remains intact, and remnants of the original decor, along with a little imagination, allow for any visitor to see the potential of this charming theater. It was designed by William H. Lee in the Hollywood Moorish style, with a single screen and seating for 1300. It opened on the First of June, 1927 as a silent picture theater, soon to be upgraded with the introduction of “talkies.” The complex also houses store-fronts on either side, as well as offices upstairs.
The Lansdowne Theater reigned from 1927 until 1987, when there was a fire in the basement of one of its store-fronts. The theater remained closed and untouched for 20 years, with a few failed attempts at revival from private owners. In 2007, the Historic Lansdowne Theater Corporation purchased the building in hopes of restoring it to an epicenter of social activity. And of course, at the forefront of this restoration effort is Lansdowne’s own Matt Schultz.
Matt Schultz moved to Lansdowne, PA when he was 8 years old, went to Lansdowne High School, and aside from a few short-term leaves of absence, has spent the majority of his adult life in Lansdowne. Now, he is heading up the exciting and ambitious efforts to revive the Lansdowne Theater.
Schultz’s interest in historical preservation stems from being the son of a history teacher. Starting in his teenage years, Schultz was involved in town affairs, specifically dealing with historical landmarks. Among his many accomplishments, he was the leading force behind saving the Lansdowne Train Station, headed the town’s WWI and WWII statue restoration, raised $350,000 to purchase the property surrounding an irreplaceable sycamore tree, and somehow still found time to release a book and movie starring his beloved Lansdowne. Everything that he has done thus far in his career seems to have lead up to this project.
After volunteering for the Historical Lansdowne Theater Corporation for about two years, Matt Schultz decided to take on the theater’s restoration efforts full-time. He, along with supporters, believes that this theater is an opportunity to revitalize the surrounding business district. One of his first restoration efforts was to petition for funding; but this was not an ordinary petition of just a bunch of names on paper, this was a visual petition. Through a little bit of advertising they were able to congregate about 350 enthusiastic Lansdowne townspeople on the sidewalk under the theater’s marquee, where a picture of the petition was taken.
When it was purchased in 2007, repositioning the theater as part of Lansdowne’s social life became the primary goal. Schultz felt that renting out the retail spaces to a coffee shop and movie rental store would attract the demographic they are hoping to reach. Along with renting out the office spaces upstairs and allowing for cell towers to be placed on the roof, this allowed for some additional funding towards the restoration. It is the first time in 35 years that the spaces attached to the theater have been filled.
After deciding not to split the single-screen and 1300 seats into smaller theaters, the use of the theater as a revived “movie palace” has been reconsidered. Rather than showing movies, the committee now hopes to attract different types of music and live performances to the theater. The accessibility of the theater to suburban Delaware County as well as to Center City makes this theater an ideal spot for affordable concerts and events. The committee is also offering it as a location for summer camps and commencement for local school districts.
After the success of a trial concert in which the acapella group Straight No Chaser brought in a crowd of around 1100 to the unfinished theater, it has been full-speed ahead. The committee has already spoken to an architect and has had baseline drawings done. The only thing standing in the way of restoring this wonderful theater is additional funding and underwriting; Schultz, other supporters, and charitable Philadelphians can and will make it happen.
Written by Caitlin Blood for Proper Philadelphia
For more information on the Lansdowne Historical Theater and how to help, please visit www.lansdownetheater.org