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Phila. Film Society revives Prince Music Theater

'Someday My Prince Will Come" is, of course, the signature song from Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - the animated gem that enjoyed impressive box office at the Karlton, a second-run movie house at 1412 Chestnut St., way back in the spring of 1938.

1412 Chestnut Street. (Creative Director/Photographer)
1412 Chestnut Street. (Creative Director/Photographer)Read more

'Someday My Prince Will Come" is, of course, the signature song from Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - the animated gem that enjoyed impressive box office at the Karlton, a second-run movie house at 1412 Chestnut St., way back in the spring of 1938.

"Someday My Prince Will Come" could also serve as the new anthem for film lovers across Philadelphia and, in particular, Center City, which has fewer dedicated movie screens (14) than many suburban multiplexes.

That bleak cinemascape is about to change. The Philadelphia Film Society - the nonprofit that oversees the annual Philadelphia Film Festival and operates the Roxy Theater on Sansom Street - has gained control of the Prince Music Theater, descendant of the Karlton. With $8 million from the Wyncote Foundation, the PFS closed a deal on the property Thursday.

In a seriously underserved town, any added venue is a boon to filmgoers.

"The more screens, the better for the city," says J. Andrew Greenblatt, the PFS's executive director. "We're still well behind every other major city. But we're doing our best to change that."

Opened as a cinema in 1921 (foyers of Italian marble), and renovated and reopened in 1950 as the first-run Midtown, the theater stopped showing movies in 1995. Born again as a live performance hall, it was rechristened the Prince Music Theater in 1999, in honor of the Broadway eminence, producer, and director Hal Prince.

Ever since, in lurching fashion, it has been home to plays, concerts, opera, comedy, and the occasional big-event movie premiere. Until November, that is, when its fiscally challenged operators were forced to close the doors.

Greenblatt suddenly found himself with a dilemma. The 450-seat theater, with its giant screen and digital and 35mm projection systems, had been the beating heart of the PFS annual Film Festival. Precious, with director Lee Daniels and Oscar-nominated star Gabourey Sidibe on hand, debuted at the Prince in 2009. The 10th anniversary of Unbreakable, with M. Night Shyamalan doing a Q&A, screened at the Prince in 2010. The 20th anniversary festival showing of Philadelphia, with Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme on hand, was a sold-out affair in 2013.

Although only about 15 percent of the festival's screenings have been held at the Prince each year (other venues include the Ritz East, the Roxy, and University City screens), they've been the highest-profile titles, accounting for about 30 percent of the fest's overall attendance, according to Greenblatt.

"How can we do a festival without the Prince?" was the question he and his partners were asking.

Now, they don't have to worry. Greenblatt plans to continue running the Prince as a mixed-use facility, but with many weeks of the year blocked out for the festival and other film events. The Prince's black box theater, seating 150, can also be used for screenings. Greenblatt hopes to invite smaller festivals - the Jewish Film Festival, the Asian American Film Festival, and other niche programmers - to use the upstairs facility.

"We're going to show a good amount of film, both first-run and curated, and, of course, the festival at the Prince," he says. "And then it will be a rental place for everybody else. Concerts, comedy, live musical performances, dramatic performances, et cetera. We hope to have the place really, really busy - we want a lot of people there."

Once the Prince begins showing movies - and the plan is to book summer blockbusters, such as the upcoming Jurassic World and the Mad Max reboot - Center City residents won't have to schlep to the dowdy RiverView in South Philadelphia, or across the bridge to Cherry Hill, or navigate the Schuylkill Expressway to King of Prussia.

On a night when all four screens are in use at the Prince and the Roxy, the PFS will have 768 seats ready for occupancy. By contrast, the Bryn Mawr Film Institute has an 862 capacity for its four theaters.

"The message that we need more screens in Philadelphia is certainly one that we all support," says Juliet Goodfriend, executive director of the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. "I was a contributor to the Prince, and I'm glad to see it resurrected."

John Toner, executive director of Renew Theaters, the nonprofit that operates art-house venues in Ambler, Doylestown, Jenkintown, and Princeton, welcomed the film society's news.

"I love the main space at the Prince," says Toner, a Philly native. "It's an amazing place to see films. It has a huge screen. It's got a wonderful sound system, good seats. It's one of my favorite places to see films at the festival."

He also believes the mixed-use plan is the "perfect strategy."

"When you have a single-screen theater with that many seats . . . you don't want to book an edgy Romanian New Wave film that will have a dedicated, but limited, audience," he explains.

"It's unrealistic to expect a single screen in downtown to do nothing but play films - the way it would have when it was a movie theater in the '60s."

The PFS, whose mission is "promoting film as a powerful means for strengthening community education, understanding, and outreach," also has plans for the Roxy, which it has run since December 2013. While one of its two screens will continue to book first-run fare, PFS artistic director Michael Lerman and education and programs director Allison Koehler have slated special spring and summer programs for the other twin.

There will be a Noah Baumbach mini-retrospective, including the area premiere of his new film, While We're Young, with Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts. A Hitchcock program, centered around his Grace Kelly collaborations Dial M For Murder, Rear Window, and To Catch a Thief, is on the calendar. Filmadelphia, offering work by area filmmakers, and Passport to World Cinema, an international series, are scheduled. A midnight movies series, a Wednesday night "BYO" program of wedding-themed films, a slate of movie musicals, and a showcase of documentaries by women are also on the Roxy lineup.

"The synergy between the two theaters," Greenblatt says, "is going to be critical to where we go."

And critical to a legion of Philly film fans.