The historic Lansdowne Theater opened on June 1, 1927 with the silent film Knockout Riley. It served as the Philadelphia suburb’s primary source for cinema until 1987 when, during a screening of Beverly Hills Cop II, a fire broke out that damaged the theater’s electrical system beyond it’s owners’ means of repair. Ownership of the closed theater changed hands multiple times over the course of the two decades that followed until the non-profit Historic Lansdowne Theater Corporation assumed responsibility in 2007. Since then, the HLTC have been renovating the theater in preparation for its impending re-opening as a Keswick-type venue for the musical arts.
The HLTC will be opening the doors of the Lansdowne Theater for guided tours on June 1st from 10 AM – 1 PM. Visitors will have the rare opportunity to explore both the backstage area and the projection booth. Visit the HLTC’s website for further information.
Cinema 16:9 opened in March 2009 as a two-room digital theater showcasing the best in current independent cinema. The theater’s main lobby and 40 seat screening room are located directly next door to the Lansdowne Theater’s entrance while its 65 seat room is located above the Lansdowne in a space that was originally built in the 1980s by Broomall-based house painter Len Cella of Moron Movies/Johnny Carson fame. Cinema 16:9’s lobby contains computers, plush chairs, and plenty of film-related reading material that provide a rare sense of community within a theater environment. The space also doubles as a video rental store with a modest inventory that will surely please your average discriminating cinephile.
I sat down with affable Cinema 16:9 founder/manager David Titus prior to a Terrible Tuesday screening, a weekly series that he programs in which the audience is encouraged to verbally mock the evening’s choice of film, to discuss the evolution of his theater and the characteristics that make it worth the trip from Center City.
Cinedelphia: Does Cinema 16:9 exist independently of the Lansdowne Theater?
David Titus: Yes, we have two theater spaces that are within the foundation of the historic Lansdowne Theater. I built this one [referring to the 40 seat room dubbed “The Fox”] and then there’s a theater upstairs that we reclaimed and refitted, “The Phoenix”.
The past year was really excellent for us. We’ve been bringing films straight out of film festivals, hand-picking things like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Queen to Play, getting stuff straight out of places like Cannes. So it’s been really exciting.
C: Did you scout this space with the intention of creating an entirely new theater?
DT: Yeah, we were looking to create this theater space as well as the video rental that we offer. We hoped that by the time the [Lansdowne] Theater opens we’ll have been here for a while and will have relationships with distributors so that we can do screenings there too.
C: Something along the lines of a film festival-type event?
DT: Yeah, this theater, the Lansdowne Theater, is a prime location. It’s actually kind of interesting, you plot it on a map and this is the absent area, this is where you need a festival.
DT: Well, I pulled out a box of college stuff one night and found a napkin from the Ithaca College cafeteria that I’d written my top ten future jobs on. Number two was owning my own theater. So it started there.
When we first opened I’d come from a video rental store in the Philadelphia area in which I helped found a 25 seat screening room.
DT: Up at [Mt. Airy’s] Video Library. So I started doing some programming there and then my wife and I had an opportunity to move down here so I had to table that. And while we were in the process of moving down here I’d been developing this business model for a theater and screening films at the Sedgwick. When we first got here, the Lansdowne was owned by a private entity.
C: Was it closed at that point?
DT: Yeah, it’s been closed since the 80s. So I was sort of drooling over this place, this business model for a theater had been nagging at me, I wanted to see inside. Once the building switched hands to a nonprofit entity we asked around and were introduced to a couple members of the board and we said “look, we can bring film back to the historic Lansdowne Theater before the rest of the building is ready. This place can be a source for independent film, a place for all sorts of great film, regional and other.”
C: How long before your March 2009 opening was that?
DT: Well, I was shopping around to other buildings as well, but I think it was early 2008 when I had a presentation to the board, March 2008. I was ready with most everything, the concept was pretty well worked out by that point and I’d actually worked with a small business development corporation out of Widener in an advising capacity. [When building the theater] we worked with Clear Sound over in Yeadon to help with the sound and my sister, who is an architect, worked with me to design the space.
C: If this was your number two career choice back in college, what was your first choice?
DT: #1 was acting. #3 was male stripper, but I decided that would probably never happen.
C: How large is your staff?
DT: …six people.
C: The theater’s bringing in money then?
DT: Enough to pay rent and employees, we’re scraping by.
C: The snacks that you provide are quite unique…
DT: Yes, today is a great example because we are currently offering a full Fentimans soda tasting. Unique sodas. My wife and I have always wanted to build something classy and she’s worked very hard to find good, organic, natural, and, whenever possible, local options for our snacks. We get hot dogs from Lancaster county, which are 100% grass-fed beef. I’ve met the cows, they are very nice. We offer the cousins of traditional movie snacks. You can get nachos from a movie theater, you can get nachos from us. It’s just that ours have real cheese and organic salsa. So yeah, they’re cousins.
C: Do you have any other recurring events?
DT: Every Wednesday and Saturday we have KinderHour, which is free for parents accompanied by free children. And that is co-sponsored by the Lansdowne Friends School. And then every Thursday night in Lansdowne is dinner and a movie night. You buy a ticket here for any movie we’re playing and then you go over to a local restaurant where they’ll give you a special meal with your ticket purchase. It’s really exciting, it’s a lot of fun. Friday we’re doing Forgotten Films, films like Boy in the Plastic Bubble that aren’t frequently viewed, but are decent and often a product of their times. One of the things we’ll be bringing back hopefully is The Jazz Singer, that will be a lot of fun though it was made in a very different time period than now.
C: Do you personally consider yourself a cinephile?
DT: Well, oftentimes what people associate with “cinephile” is cinema snobbery. I’ve never been that type of a cinephile. I love films for the fact that they entertain people, I love entertaining people. So one of the main things that I come to film exhibition with is a respect for different tastes in film, all tastes are valid, people should be able to see whatever entertains them. And someone has to supply that entertainment to the people. So I love making things available and bringing films to people, helping people explore film. And I’m sure you know how hard it is to show people a great film at this point in time unless someone has thrown billions of dollars into marketing it, but we’re finding those great films and we’re a location that you can trust to show those great films every day of the week as well as a truly terrible one every Tuesday.
C: How do you get people to leave their digital-friendly homes in favor of your digital-friendly theater?
DT: Well, we’re selling an experience, a lost one in fact. People used to come to movie theaters to be in a movie theater, to be in the structure. What was up on the screen didn’t matter, it could be a train on a track rolling towards you, it could be a Jewish jazz singer in blackface, it could be a terrible or fantastic action adventure film, it didn’t matter. They were there to see the space, to be treated wonderfully, to escape their everyday lives as a group. People don’t do that anymore, now they often escape into their own individual devices. So this is an opportunity to be with other people and as soon as someone experiences that again it’s a feeling that they can’t let go of, they love coming back.
Check back tomorrow (or possibly next Tuesday if I don’t get around to it tonight) for a write-up of last week’s Terrible Tuesday screening of Between God, the Devil and a Winchester.
NOTE: Just in case you’re wondering, the tire in the above photo of David is a reference to the film Rubber, which just wrapped up its run at Cinema 16:9 this past Thursday. It’s worth noting that Cinema 16:9 was the only theater in the Philadelphia-area to screen this popular existentialist horror film that concerns the murderous misadventures of a psychokinetic killer tire.