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Neighbors fight bar/concert hall

Once, the Jumbo Theatre was one of the country's premier movie palaces. Now, residents of Northern Liberties, Kensington and Fishtown are fighting a plan to restore the theater to its former glory.

The Jumbo Theater in 1915.
The Jumbo Theater in 1915.Read more

IN THE EARLY 20th century, the Jumbo Theatre, at Front Street and Girard Avenue, was one of the country's premier movie palaces.

Today it stands abandoned beneath the Girard Avenue stop on the Market-Frankford Line, near fast-food restaurants, a strip joint and a tattoo parlor.

Under the circumstances, one might expect that a successful Philly nightspot owner's plan to convert the Jumbo into a concert venue would be welcomed by the neighborhood, home to many artists and musicians.

But residents of Northern Liberties, Kensington and Fishtown - the three communities that meet at Front and Girard - are fighting the plan.

Developer Avram Hornik - whose resumé includes Drinker's Tavern, Bar Noir, Loie, NoChe, and Lucy's Hat Shop - has visions of restoring the theater to its former glory.

At a community meeting Sept. 10, Hornik revealed plans to reopen the Jumbo as a 500-to-700-person-capacity bar/restaurant/music hall in April 2009.

But shortly after his announcement, state Rep. Curtis Thomas made an announcement of his own: He had just filed a petition to intervene with Hornik's liquor-license application.

"The community hasn't been given enough say in all of this," the legislator said later. "They've got some serious concerns that need addressing."

Among those concerns, residents say, are issues of parking, noise, capacity and late-night drunkenness.

Although Hornik has signed a conditional licensing agreement, which ensures that all concerts would end before midnight, residents worry that concertgoers would linger at the bar until much later.

"The venue could become a virtual nightclub, with people staying and drinking after the shows and then spilling out at 2 a.m. when they're drunk and rowdy," said Manny Citron, director of the neighborhood advisory committee of the New Kensington Community Development Corp.

That group organized the community meeting along with the Fishtown Neighbors Association, the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association and the Kensington South Neighborhood Advisory Council.

"This is the first time I've seen these four community organizations come together as one family," Thomas said, noting that their division on the SugarHouse casino issue had caused tension among the neighborhoods.

Matt Ruben, president of the Northern Liberties group, said that although development is generally good for the area, Hornik's plan needs some changes.

"The capacity needs to be reduced," Ruben said. "There's no way you can bring in 700 people every night without disrupting the neighborhood."

The Jumbo Theatre stands within 300 feet of a child-care center and within 500 feet of several churches, which could pose a problem for Hornik.

The petition to intervene with his liquor-license application will allow community members to speak before the Liquor Control Board - and the LCB can deny the transfer of a license to any place within 300 feet of a school or a religious institution.

But Hornik isn't worried. His goal is to have a liquor license and zoning permit in place by October, he said. At that point, construction on the 103-year-old theater would commence.

"Restoring the Jumbo will be a great, positive step toward reviving the whole commercial strip at Front and Girard," said Hornik. "We're taking one of the old, traditional landmarks of the area and giving it new energy and life. I think it's exciting, and I think it could do a lot of good for the area."

Last movie was in '47

Built in 1905, the theater had its heyday in the 1920s and '30s. The last movie shown there was "The Perils of Pauline," in 1947. The building was converted into a warehouse in 1965 for Fox Electric Supply Co., which still owns it.

The firm kept the original interior intact, covering the walls and ceiling with drywall - which Hornik says would be fairly easy to strip off.

The restoration work he's already done has revealed a well-preserved and intricately carved arch that once stood over the Jumbo's stage, as Hornik showed a Daily News reporter Monday.

In 2001 the building was leased to Global Thrift, and in 2003 to Goodwill Industries. Since 2006, the Jumbo has sat unused, still marked by giant letters reading Global Thrift.

"We have the opportunity to make this abandoned theater a hub of the city once again," Hornik said.

But residents remain unconvinced. Until Hornik can prove to them that the venue would not become a community nuisance, leaders in the three neighborhoods say they will continue to oppose his plan.

"This is a really great neighborhood, and we're excited to see it grow and develop in a way that maintains or improves the neighbors' quality of life," said resident Juliette Cook.

"When the peace and safety of our families are threatened, however, we are compelled to defend our basic rights."