Staying alive at the Devon Theater

As 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 Le 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
Posted in News Information History | Comments Off on Staying alive at the Devon Theater

Last Shows December 2010

History of the Devon Theater

Located in the Mayfair district of Philadelphia, designed in late-Streamline Moderne style by the firm of Thalheimer & Weitz, the Devon Theatre opened in 1946 with 878 seats, all on a single floor. A feature of the auditorium were large mural plaques midway on the side-walls over emergency exits, which depict Classical female figures with movie camera and the ‘Oscar’ statue. The plaques were back-lit.

The Devon Theater ran first run movies, then went to second run and this led to screening adult films in the 1970’s. The community successfully rallied to remove the adult films and to instead show second-run films. It then briefly screened ‘Classic’ movies, but this venture failed and it was closed in the late-1990’s.

After a few years of lying dormant, it was renovated for use as a performing arts center. The Devon Theater for the Peforming Arts opened on March 27, 2009, showing Broadway shows, comedy events, concerts, community theater and more.

With the approval of the 2009-2010 PA State Budget, came a significant cut in funding for community and economic development across the state. As a result of these budget cuts, the State Grant allocated to cover stage productions and operational costs associated with these productions for the Devon Theater was cut from the budget. The last shows were in December 2010.

Posted in News Information History | Comments Off on Last Shows December 2010

Nunsense Devon Theater April 2009

“It’s a Philadelphia theater that just happens to be in the working class Northeast neighborhood of Mayfair.”

So says Michael Pickering, the artistic director of the Devon Theater, which reopened on March 27th, after being shuttered for years.

He says he isn’t too concerned about developing a following far from the glitz of Center City’s Avenue of the Arts and the established Old City arts scene. The Devon is just another sign of a sprouting Philadelphia theatre culture.

The classic musical comedy Nunsense is the apt opener for this theater in the heart of a proud Irish Catholic community. It runs until April 19th before Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple takes front stage as the second of the five-performance inaugural season.

The Devon first opened in 1946 as another in the city’s collection of proud movie houses. It turned to second and third-run films as a strategy to fight multiscreen theaters before showing adult films in the 1970s. Before being bought by the Mayfair Community Develop Corp. in Aug. 2004, the Devon remained an empty eyesore. It’s since been restored to a remarkable luster and is certainly worth the trip alone. Seeing a classic American musical like Nunsense is another reason, indeed.

The Devon is within a short 10-minute walk up Frankford Avenue from the Frankford Transportation Center, the last stop on the El. It’s across the street from the famed tomato pies of Tony’s Place and nearly adjacent to the original Chickie’s and Pete’s. Every self-respecting Philadelphian has to see this resurgent heart of the Northeast.

Nunsense @ The Devon
Now through April 19th

The Devon Theater for Performing Arts

Nunsense @ Devon Theater in Northeast Philadelphia

Posted in News Information History | Comments Off on Nunsense Devon Theater April 2009

Sport & Entertainment Property For Sale


This historical 440 seat theater in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia was completely rehabbed in 2007/2008 to the tune of several million dollars. It was used for only a few shows before going dormant for the last 5 years. That being said the theater is in amazing condition with all updated AV and lighting equipment. Dressing rooms for 10-15 are located on the upper level behind the stage. VIP Seating area and room for before/after party located at the rear of the theater. The venue also included 6 retail storefronts on Frankford Avenue.

Located directly on Frankford Avenue between a Rite Aid and Advanced Auto Parts. The Original Chickies and Pete’s is only 1/2 a block away with many other banks, restaurants and retail in the immediate area.

Posted in News Information History | Comments Off on Sport & Entertainment Property For Sale

Mayfair’s Devon Theater Is One of Philly’s Most Popular Listings

The Devon Theater at 6325-43 Frankford Avenue opened in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia in 1946. Some years it featured first-run movies; other years, it showed second-run only. There was an experiment with adult film screenings during the 1970s, but community opposition quashed that.

We asked a Mayfair native in his early 30s if he had any associations with the Devon. “When my parents were kids,” he said, “it showed first-run stuff. By the time I was a kid in the early 1990s, it showed movies things that came out a few months before, and it was maybe a $1.50 for a film. There was a hole in the screen, I don’t know how big. I think I saw Who Framed Roger Rabbit there.”

He also remembered being told that during the years when the theater had porn screenings in addition to regular movies, Catholic school kids weren’t allowed to go to the Devon at all–and if you were caught there, you’d get in trouble in school. “Not because you were seeing porn, but because they didn’t want you supporting such a business.”

After a brief flirtation with “classic” films, the theater closed in the late 1990s, to sit vacant for years.

But hope springs eternal in Mayfair. Between 2007 and 2008, the property was completely rehabbed for several million dollars, and The Devon Theater for the Performing Arts opened in 2009. About five shows ran before state funding forced it to close, but it’s still got all that updated AV and lighting equipment.

Now the building is for sale, and according to LoopNet, the premier listing service of commercial properties for sale and lease, it’s one of top 10 that users look at most.

The price tag is pretty low: It’s only a million bucks for 13,462 square feet with 400 seats approved for sports and entertainment use.

• Listing: 6325-43 Frankford Avenue, Philadelphia


Posted in News Information History | Comments Off on Mayfair’s Devon Theater Is One of Philly’s Most Popular Listings