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
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