A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the film about how Mr. Rogers turned a cynical journalist around, was playing the Ritz at the Bourse last Sunday when the news came down. Just like that, it turned into a horrible day in the neighborhood.
After nearly 30 years of purveying art movies like Daughters of the Dust, Bend It Like Beckham, and last year’s Oscar winner, Roma, the Old City theater’s current operators, Cohen Media, announced that the Art Deco multiplex at Fourth and Ranstead would flick off the house lights on Jan. 26.
Within minutes there was a cyber-wake on Twitter. Here’s a sample of posts from Bourse regulars — responding to my call-out for favorite memories — mourning the theater that provided them the kind of public, communal experiences they don’t get from streaming movies in their dens at home:
“Seeing Tommy Wiseau introduce THE ROOM a few years ago and do a Q&A is one of my favorite Philly memories, period,” tweeted Andy Elijah.
“Beautiful memory of watching [Satyajit Ray’s] The Apu Trilogy in one day there...,” chimed in Paul Howe.
“Coming out of [Darren Aronofsky’s] The Wrestler trying to hide the fact that I had been openly weeping moments earlier,” added Paul Dellevigne.
Conventional wisdom has it that in the on-demand universe, an operation like the Bourse is like a dinosaur right before the asteroid hit. It’s at places like the Bourse and its sisters, the Ritz Five and Ritz East (which will remain open), that audiences see movies exponentially larger than on their TVs. It’s where they meet directors like Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust), Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), and Jennie Livingston (Paris Is Burning). At Ritz theaters, it goes without saying that moviegoers strike up impromptu convos. In that regard, the theaters are the movie equivalent of the Free Library’s author events program, where writers speak at the Central Library.
The late Ray Posel, the real estate developer who built the Ritz theaters into a regional powerhouse, knew his audience and instituted such meet-the-filmmaker events long before Landmark Theaters, and then Cohen Media, took over the theaters. Ray’s motto was, “Movies to talk about.” And his customers did. In 1990, the Bourse opened its doors with Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, Clint Eastwood’s White Hunter Black Heart, and Franco Zeffirelli’s La Traviata. Posel was an educator/entrepreneur who purveyed American indie cinema, African American cinema, Asian cinema, and LGBTQ cinema long before they were artistic movements.
Conventional wisdom also has it that cable television is where the art is and movie theaters are a burial ground for superheroes and their infinity wars. But if that is really so, why did 2019 record the third-biggest film domestic box office ever, why is Regal committing millions to renovate the Riverview multiplex, and why is the new AMC Fashion District such a happening place? In part because mainstream multiplexes are betting that serving alcohol and food will bring people in the doors. I’d argue that in larger part, it’s about meeting your tribe in the real rather than the virtual world. The movie is part of the experience, and talking about it after clarifies and enlarges that experience.
In truth, the Bourse has been in limbo since Posel died (in 2005), and Posel Management sold the theaters to Landmark in 2007. A national chain then owned by Dallas Mavericks owner (and Shark Tank star investor) Mark Cuban, Landmark programmed the same movies chain-wide, assuming that what worked in Denver would work in Philly. Under Landmark, films churned through the Bourse for one-week runs. Except for Midnight Madness, its weekend series of late-night cult films, the Bourse had lost its idiosyncratic Philadelphia-ness.
While I’ll be at the theater on Sunday between 6 and 8 p.m. for a memorial organized by Bourse employees and regulars, I’m also heartened to hear from sources that there are parties interested in restoring the Bourse to Posel’s original mission. Indescribably sad now, but hopefully come spring, it will be a beautiful day at the Bourse again.