Coming to a choice parcel on Chestnut Street just west of Broad: neither a chic new condominium nor another drugstore. The Prince Music Theater isn't going anywhere.
The defunct theater in the center of town was sold Thursday to the Philadelphia Film Society - a transaction that not only gives the film group a new home, but also preserves the hall's role for arts groups that cannot afford pricier venues like the Kimmel Center.
The theater has already reopened for business. Its first show under new ownership - The Last Jimmy, a hip-hop musical - is slated to open March 18. It will still be known as the Prince Theater for the time being.
When the theater closed in November, it left the film society without a major venue, said executive director J. Andrew Greenblatt. "We are so bound to that building, we said, 'How do we run a film festival without the Prince?' "
Among those who took up the question was Sharon Pinkenson, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office and a film society advisory board member. She approached David Haas, also a member of the film society's advisory board and a board member of the William Penn and Wyncote Foundations (both major arts funders).
Wyncote eventually provided the full $8 million for the film society to buy the building from a group that included local real estate moguls Ronald Caplan and Ira M. Lubert.
"Sharon said, 'We can't let this venue slip away,' and she went to Wyncote first and started the conversation with them," Greenblatt said.
Haas said he found the proposal appealing because of the way it could simultaneously further the arts and film communities. "Film is seen not as much as a traditional art form by foundations, but it really is," he said. "In the long term, the work that the film society can create is to have a film space as diverse as the people who make film locally and around the world."
The deal was completed without creating any debt for the film society, Greenblatt said, although the film group will soon begin raising money for cash reserves and an endowment, as well as anticipated capital needs, like a new HVAC system.
The lack of debt will allow the Prince to offer the venue to arts groups at rates much lower than those at the Kimmel. "We have had a ton of interest from local groups and hope that translates into actual bookings," said Greenblatt. "We've been very flexible on pricing, changing the model from what it was, because we want people in the building."
The Kimmel has made its halls more affordable in recent years by sometimes becoming a co-presenter with some of its resident companies.
The screen at the Prince is the largest in Center City, Greenblatt said. The film society will retain management of the smaller Roxy at 2023 Sansom St.
With about 450 seats, the Prince, at 1412 Chestnut St., has been an ideal venue for many arts groups - slightly smaller than the Kimmel's Perelman Theater, and larger than the Trinity Center and other downtown halls. It has been used by the Curtis Institute of Music for opera productions, Philadelphia Gay Men's Chorus, Philadelphia Dance Academy, and other groups.
Curtis has scheduled its May opera at the Prince, and the theater is talking to other interested groups. Five new or returning full-time staffers have been hired. The roster of performances will be spare in coming months, but then bookings are expected to increase.
"We hope to have a pretty extensive slate for the back half of the year," said Greenblatt. "The summer will be us programming film, because summer is more of a quiet time for live art and the most high-profile time for film. Then in the fall, I think we'll have a busier slate with other organizations coming in, and, obviously, we'll be there in October for the Philadelphia Film Festival."
The Prince Music Theater - the organization - lost the building after declaring bankruptcy in 2010, and the theater was sold at auction to the Caplan/Lubert group, which leased it to a successor organization, also called the Prince Music Theater. But the Prince organization's board chair, Herb Lotman, died in May, and the group decided to dissolve, raising fears the site would be cleared for redevelopment.