Live theater is an all-consuming passion for Stan Heleva and Michelle Pauls. That ardent enthusiasm was the driving force behind the creation of the Walking Fish Theatre, which opened in August 2007 on Frankford Avenue near Cumberland Street, in Kensington.
Heleva and Pauls grew up in the Lehigh Valley, but a serendipitous encounter brought them together at the Shubin Theater, at Fourth and Bainbridge Streets, in the mid-1990s. They married a couple of years later.
In 2006, they seized the opportunity to buy a circa-1840s three-story structure at a bargain-basement price from the New Kensington Community Development Corp. that would house not only a theater, but also their family. After the birth of Astrid, now 6, it was time to shift into a calmer and at least slightly saner lifestyle.
"Before we bought this property, Michelle and I had been doing business for nearly a decade under B. Someday Productions, performing wherever and however we could, using a variety of different venues and rehearsing at all kinds of crazy hours," Heleva recalled.
The Walking Fish itself is small, 900 square feet with seating for only 45, though it packs a lot in: performance space on the first floor; green room, scene shop and utility area beneath. The second and third floors have 1,800 square feet of living space for the couple, their daughter, cats Spotty and Stripy, and a yellow parakeet named Steve.
The building is the culmination of intense hard work and represents an unwavering commitment to a dream of living and working in the same space.
"At the time we made the deal, we thought we were buying a clean-swept shell, but it turned out to be anything but," Pauls said. It was a top-to-bottom rehab project right from the start.
One side of the place had no floors or ceilings, the other side had partial floors and ceilings. The staircases were another story altogether. "Let's just say, if you didn't watch where you were going, that one additional step could be very long one," she said.
Upon first seeing the property and its deplorable condition, Pauls confessed, she thought her husband had lost his mind. "Aside from a ton of pigeon droppings anywhere you looked, you could literally stand in the basement and look three stories up through the roof and see the sky."
Stan, a onetime engineering major (before switching to English), saw beyond the rubble to design possibilities and future opportunities.
"Just as nothing happens with a play until a script is written, nothing ever happens to a building without an engineer," he said, chuckling.
Despite countless hours of sweat equity, Heleva calculated that the repairs cost more than double what they spent for the building because of skyrocketing material costs and labor rates in 2006 and '07.
"The project nearly stalled with just three short months to completion," he said. Though he was reluctant to use them, credit cards helped keep both family and project afloat.
Complicating matters were several break-ins during off-hours, when the gutted building was vacant.
"Boarded-up windows and temporary doors make easy targets for would-be thieves, but when you're working on a project of this magnitude, it's tough to keep an unoccupied house completely secured," Heleva lamented. He estimated thousands of dollars in tools and materials were stolen while the couple was living in a house on Cedar Street in nearby Fishtown.
"We put two mortgages on that house in order to build this one," explained Heleva, who moved to the Frankford Avenue address for the last two months of the work.
The building had sustained serious water damage while it stood empty for more than two decades. The pilings that supported the front outside wall had rotted and had to be replaced to prevent a collapse. And hidden behind the horsehair plaster were many brick walls either lacking scores of bricks or with some so loose and oxidized that they, too, had to be replaced.
Two steel girders were installed to shore up the kitchen area along an outside wall. Today, the space has been entirely revamped, complete with a Thermador professional range (Heleva does the cooking) and a side-by-side Eurotech washer and dryer. Wooden beams provide extra structural support, as well as decorative flair and the perfect place to hang pots, pans, and utensils.
At the far end of the kitchen, Heleva broke through a wall to accommodate French doors, and designed a landing and spiral staircase that leads to a fenced-in backyard with grass below. The diamond-plate steel landing, custom-cut and bent treads, and square stock and gas-pipe railings were all purchased from a steel fabricator and welded over a two-day period.
Red and white oak accents the second and third floors and the stairs, each piece painstakingly restored by hand over a three-week, 24-hour-a-day period, Heleva said. The kitchen is floored with marble and tile.
The second-floor bathroom boasts a vintage 6-foot-long claw-foot tub, signed by the caster in 1900, and a mix of marble and black and white tile flooring pieced together from odds and ends acquired mostly at flea markets.
"In this day and age, you need to be resourceful," Heleva said. "The tub, the flooring, and so many other things we have integrated into the property were simply the result of just keeping our eyes peeled for stuff that nobody wanted anymore."
The couple found the tub on a curb in Northern Liberties, waiting to be hauled away. "We put it on a skateboard and dragged it home as best we could," he said, adding that it took several people to get the 600-pound relic upstairs and put it in place.
But now, Pauls and Heleva are living their dream in Kensington, sharing their theater, their experience, and their contagious enthusiasm and optimism with all who choose to partake.