Theater History

THEATER HISTORY

 
Founded in 1984 as the American Music Theater Festival, the company spent its first 15 years without a home of its own. During that time, AMTF performed in different venues throughout Philadelphia.

By the late 1990’s, the city began to undertake the transformation of Broad Street into the Avenue of the Arts. Under the leadership of Marjorie Samoff, the American Music Theater Festival set its eyes on building itself a new home. They would find it in the historic, former Midtown Theater. As a movie theater, the Midtown had seen many Philadelphia premieres and countless Hollywood stars. AMTF put itself into the project of converting this now run-down relic of the past into one of the most vibrant, modern and spacious live theaters in Philadelphia.

In March of 1999, under the new name Prince Music Theater, the company opened its new home with stars from both Hollywood and Broadway. Named in honor of legendary Broadway producer and director Hal Prince, the new theater has pushed forward the innovative and unique American art form for which Mr. Prince has been so instrumental.


HISTORICAL BUILDING

 
Before it became the Prince Music Theater in 1999, 1412 Chestnut had been a legendary movie theater under two different names: the Karlton Theater (1921-1950) and the Midtown Theater (1950-1995).

With gratitude to the Cinema Treasures website and Howard B. Haas.

The Karlton Theater opened on Chestnut Street between Broad Street and 15th Street, on October 17, 1921, as a second run movie theater. The theater was built in a building that existed at least as of 1880. A photo of the building as Jacob Reed’s store, a famous clothing store that later built a flagship on the same block, appears in the book Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square (authors Robert Morris Skaler and Thomas Keels, publisher Arcadia, 2008). The theater was designed by Philadelphia theater architects Hoffman-Henon. Lobbies and foyers had Italian marble and fountains. The auditorium had 1,066 seats on one floor.

In 1943, Philadelphia theater operator William Goldman acquired the Karlton Theater and changed it into a first run movie theater. The world premiere of the movie Adam’s Rib was hosted November 16, 1949. With a double feature of Gilda and Platinum Blonde, the Karlton Theater closed on October 16, 1950.

Renovations were carried out by architect David Supowitz. Green plastic covered most of the facade, and giant letters spelled out the theater’s new name, Midtown. The Midtown Theater reopened December 23, 1950, with the world premiere of the movie The Goldbergs, with the stars present and civic leaders, including the mayor. The popular film Harvey was shown in 1951. In 1954 a huge screen was placed in the auditorium to showcase Todd AO 70mm epics. In 1946, nearby, Goldman opened the theater named after him, the Goldman Theater, and also from 1943, on Chestnut a few blocks to the east, he operated the theater he named after his son, the Randolph Theater. The Midtown Theater was his flagship, where he had so much success that in 1967, two blocks to the west on Chestnut, he built the Regency Theater to show more movies.

The world premiere of the film Beau Brummell, starring Stewart Granger and Elizabeth Taylor, was held at the Midtown Theatre on October 5, 1954. The Midtown Theater hosted Philadelphia roadshows of epic movies including Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), Oklahoma! (1956), South Pacific (1958), West Side Story (1961) which was shown for one year, Lawrence of Arabia (1962) which was shown for fifteen months, and The Sound of Music (1965) which was shown for twenty-six months. Oliver (1969) played for 10 months.

In the early-1970’s William Goldman sold his theaters to local operator Budco. The world premiere of Rocky II was held at the Midtown on June 14, 1979. Budco twinned the Midtown Theater’s auditorium by building a wall down the middle. The last movie to be shown in the single screen auditorium was Caligula on May 20, 1980. The Midtown Theater reopened on June 13, 1980 as a twin with The Shining on both screens. First run movies continued through the sale by Budco of its theater holdings to the AMC chain, until the Midtown Theater closed in 1995. In that year, the theater was purchased by a local non-profit and began its transformation into a live theater, for the American Musical Theater Festival.

After renovations, in March 1999, the new Prince Music Theater opened, named in honor of Broadway producer and director Hal Prince. The exterior of the Prince Music Theater resembles the 1950’s Midtown Theater exterior except the green plastic was replaced with aluminum and a new marquee installed. The interior is new, including the new 446 seat main auditorium, and a mural that Al Hirschfeld created in the redone lobby. The new auditorium occupies much less space, as the lobby was expanded, a taller basement was created, and a back stage with full fly-loft was built. The Sansom Street wall of the new back stage is where the original movie screen used to be. When there is a live show on stage, the new movie screen is flown up into the new fly loft. The second floor former ballroom was renovated to become a black box theater that can accommodate up to 150 people.

Contributed by George Quirk, Howard B. Haas from Cinema Treasures

Courtesy Cinema Treasures LLC