Stories that never ran: ‘Can the Devon Theater survive in Mayfair?’

Last month, the Devon Theater, a professional production house in a working-class neighborhood of Northeast Philadelphia, canceled the final half of its inaugural season due to state budget constraints.

In going through some documents of mine, I found, perhaps prophetically, a story that never was from back in March when the Devon first reopened. Originally planned for Philadelphia Weekly, its working slug title was ‘Can the Devon survive in Mayfair?’

Perhaps that hope now seems less likely. Below, I share the piece that didn’t run (for a variety of reasons) and some extras from the reporting.

Before writing this piece for PW, I covered the Devon’s reopening heavily, additionally for the Inquirer, NEastPhilly.com and uwishunu.

As originally written March 2009 and, boy, do I feel like my writing has grown some even in the ensuing months.

Kathleen Murray has already seen ‘Nunsense’ – years ago somewhere in Center City, she said.

But she’s not going to miss the chance to see one of the first live performances held at the resurrected Devon Theater.

So Murray, 76, bought tickets and also became a proud Devon volunteer. Last Saturday [3/14], she had orientation and looks forward serving as an usher, helping with ticketing or costumes or with the summer camp.

She’s an active theatergoer, supporting venues like the Arden and the Keswick, but says there is something special about the Devon being in Mayfair, her blue-collar Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood. That kind of support, Devon executives say, is just what they need to make professional theater work eight miles and a social class or two from Center City.

In Aug. 2004, the Mayfair Community Development Corporation, which has maintained ownership, bought the Devon for $800,000. The 65-year-old roof allowed severe water damage. There was termite-infestation, collapse and decay. As part of an expansive, $6 million plan to reshape the surrounding Frankford Avenue corridor, the CDC wanted to bring theater to the cavernous former adult movie playhouse.

There is little question that they have the attention to launch with a bang. The staying power of a modern, professional arts center in the heart of an Irish working class neighborhood in transition, though, is far less certain.

And in transition is certainly something Mayfair is in.

Mayfair was a new neighborhood in the 1930s, developing on farmland that surrounded older communities like Tacony and Holmesburg. Bounded by Roosevelt Boulevard, Pennypack Park and largely hugging Frankford Avenue, Mayfair, like much of the Northeast, is diversifying today, but still maintains its old working class Irish American roots.

“The Devon cannot exist and thrive feeding on Mayfair alone,” said Mike Lally, the theater’s general manager. “It’s going to start here, but it can’t end here.”

The marketing focus is 15 miles around, he said. They aim to be seen as a Philadelphia, not exclusively a Mayfair or even Northeast Philadelphia theater.

The $6 million cost is a heavy burden, but Lally said revenue from keeping the versatile Devon’s schedule full can help. The Devon can host weddings, community events and, McEnlee mentioned, fundraisers for nonprofits, schools and hero tributes for fallen police officers, firefighters and others. There’s also lease revenue from six storefronts.

For those six storefronts, the CDC has received more than 200 offers, Mayfair CDC Executive Director Brian Patrick King said. But they’ve only accepted two — one of which is Fuse Management, the theater’s production company.

“We want to be selective,” King said. “Because we can be.”

“This model exists across the country,” said Amy Pickering, who is assisting with the theater’s production element and educational outreach. That model includes community interaction, from two-week summer camps, art-gallery space and monthly Saturday reading sessions.

A few hundred people have offered to volunteer as ushers and ticket agents, said Michael Pickering, the Devon’s artistic director and Amy’s husband.

“They’ll even clean the toilets,”¬† he said. “Anything to be involved and make sure the Devon works.”

But will that neighborhood be enough, if it sustains at all?

“Theater companies have a great fear of leaving Center City because they don’t know if the audiences will follow,” said Karen DiLossi, the director of programs and services for the Theater Alliance of Philadelphia.

There are groups in neighborhoods beyond Center City that are succeeding at performance art though, DiLossi said. Walking Fish Theater is at the forefront of Fishtown’s resurgence, and Chestnut Hill has Stagecrafters Theater. Theatre Exile has opened offices at 13th and Reed streets and has plans for performances at those Bella Vista digs. Act II Playhouse has become a celebrated mainstay in Ambler since opening in 1998, DiLossi said.

“Still, it seems many are afraid to try it,” she said.

“This is professional theater in a community,” said Michael Pickering. “As opposed to just community theater. Our actors are professionals.”

They say their quality performances will put butts in the seats. They better hope so.

“We’re all in,” said King, the CDC director. “It can’t be anything but a win.”

If Murray, the neighborhood boster turned usher, is any example, the neighborhood will do all it can to assure that win.

“Will the Devon survive? I think it will. I certainly hope so. Once the word is out in the community, we can support this. It can pull from across the bridge in Jersey and farther still,” Murray said. “I know I’ll help anyway I can. I can’t see it fail.”

EXTRAS

  • “It’s going to be arts, culture and Tony’s pies,” Stephen McEnlee of Fuse Management said of its proximity near the famed tomato pie joint.
  • “That’s the only thing the CDC cares about with this project,” Brian Patrick King said. “We’re going to transform this stretch of Frankford Avenue. This block is going to be a model and serve as a gateway to Mayfair.”
  • Pickering has had reservations for the March 28 opening for weeks, including one for 24 people from Bucks County.
  • Pickerings, 50 and 29, now of Sicklerville, N.J. to work in Atlantic City, came on in January 2008. Met McEnlee in Discovery Church
  • “We also have the most expensive curtain track in town,” Mike Lally said of what is dividing concessions from the seated audience in the compact theater.

Joe Mallamaci, owner Tony’s Place

  • Three years ago, Tony’s expanded into a third storefront. “We have been waiting three years since for the Devon to open,” he said.
  • “This will make people stay in the neighborhood rather than go downtown or to Jersey,” he said.
  • Now Tony’s has three rooms. In 1980 bought an adjacent storefront and three years ago, after first hearing about plans to bring the Devon back, bought a third, and now can seat 210 people.
  • “We rented the room out, but now we will be able to regularly fill all three stores. We’re trying to employ people again.”
  • “My father Dominic and his brother Tony opened this restaurant 57 years ago in 1951. So we have lots of loyal customers. Many of them have left the neighborhood and they still keep coming back. But, they come to eat and they leave,” Mallamaci said. “The Devon will keep them here.”
  • “As soon as we heard the Devon was bought by the CDC, we bought another store to accommodate the new customers we knew would come.”
  • “Economically, when the economy went bad, we had to close it,” he said of the third room. “But with the buzz and the talk about the Devon, it’s going to make sense again.”
  • “I believe in the people over there running it. It’s not just the plays but the graduations, the teacher conferences. I think it’s going to have great long term success.”

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