Quintessence Theatre Group is housed in the historic Sedgwick Theater in Mount Airy neighborhood on the far north side of Philadelphia. It was designed by noted architect, William Harold Lee and opened in 1928 as a true “Movie Palace”. The Sedgwick was a landmark of art deco design, and very much a centerpiece for the neighborhood. The theatre itself was a 1600+ seat venue and designed with a full stage beneath the large projection screen which was capable of hosting a orchestra to sit and play along live to the silent movies of the day. (An event which, apparently, happened only rarely, as the “talkies” became commonplace not long after the theatre was opened.)
The massive screening room was fronted by not one, but two large and ornate lobbies which welcomed moviegoers as they entered the building. This, after they passed under a grand, lighted marquee and through the recessed, open-air box office off the sidewalk. Each room featured high ceilings, chandeliers, deco detail, and the presentation of general grandeur.
My understanding is that the “average” number of seats in any given screening room at a modern movie house is about 250. The Sedgwick had more than 1,600, and if a planned balcony had actually been constructed (it was scrapped early on while the theater was still being built), the capacity would have been more than 2,000 seats.
The Fox Theater in Atlanta, which is primarily a venue for concerts and live performances, still offers a movie series most summers. Capacity there is more than 4,600, and the movie screen is massive. They have occasionally used the full 75mm prints for certain movies featured in those summer programs. I was lucky to see 2001, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, STAR WARS, and CITIZEN KANE there in that massive venue. The Sedgwick lacked the extra balcony seating, and the house was not as wide as the Fox, but the depth of the house and the loft of the ceiling would have been comparable. How amazing to have a structure like that as your local neighborhood movie house.
The Sedgwick was one of 20 such theaters build in the late 20s in Philadelphia. They all had the great misfortune to open just before the country was buried in the depression and movie palace extravagance began to seem frivolous and unnecessary. Their presence never fully took hold, and they gradually faded, failed and shuttered their doors. Only two of them still remain, and although the Sedgwick is one of those two, both exist now in an altered state.
The Sedgwick closed as a movie house in 1966, and the building was split into two halves. The massive screening room was largely gutted and sold as a warehouse space. A cinder block wall was erected, cutting it off from the double lobbies that led to it. My understanding is that the deco ceiling, with the relief for the chandelier, and a large portion of the archway over the proscenium still remain. The lobbies remained shuttered and dormant for several decades until the building was purchased and repurposed in the mid-90s by David and Betty Ann Fellner. At that time, the open-air box office was enclosed, and what were originally lobbies became the venue for a cultural center in Mt. Airy.
A series of performance companies have taken residence there in the 20 years since, but none were able to successfully root, until Quintessence moved in five years ago and has grown a strong, expanding local audience. The now-enclosed box office is a modest lobby and rehearsal space. The original entrance lobby offers some storage and still serves as an audience passage-way, and what was the grand, second lobby is now a large, very versatile “black-box” performance space. There is a great deal of decay, but the architectural archways between the lobbies still exist. The ceilings are still intact and a beautiful deco, glass chandelier still hangs over what is now the house, but the space below is large and highly convertible into whatever look Quintessence chooses to give it for each production. (THE THREE MUSKETEERS will be performed in the round.)
Hopefully, before our run is over, I’ll find a way to take a peek inside the remnants of the old theater, maybe snap a few photos. But even if I don’t, it’s still really cool to be working in this space. It’s a big part of the character of the company as a whole, and I think it has a very unique impact on this production.