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Long-simmering rivalry keeps Bala Theatre screens dark

In a twist that has Lower Merion on the edge of its seat, the historic Bala Theatre has been closed - not for lack of money or customers, but because of a bitter personal feud.

The Bala Theatre
The Bala TheatreRead more

In a twist that has Lower Merion on the edge of its seat, the historic Bala Theatre has been closed - not for lack of money or customers, but because of a bitter personal feud.

The two men at the center of the controversy both say they love the 1926 movie house and want to see it succeed - but they loathe each other, and have come to an impasse over who is responsible for repairs and upgrades.

The landlords "were hostile from the minute we took over," said Gregory Wax, who bought the Bala Theatre lease in 2013.

"I call him Wacko, even though I know what his name is," said Isaak Sotolidis, who owns the theater, a neighboring pizza shop, and several other storefronts on the block.

The abrupt closing Dec. 1 has sent a wave of panic through historical preservationists who treasure the nearly century-old architecture, theater buffs who herald it as the region's last exotic-theme grand cinema, and businesses and neighbors who counted on the theater to anchor the revitalization of the Bala Village business district.

From it has emerged a rather predictable plot line: Trading barbs on social media and at neighborhood meetings, and, of course, litigation between the parties.

As the dispute between Wax and Sotolidis works its way through Montgomery County courts, neighbors and local officials have tried to smooth things over.

"We want this put behind them rather quickly," said Amara Briggs, president of the Bala Cynwyd Neighborhood Club. "We don't want to see this great community asset sitting closed and boarded up."

"We are all kind of upset. We know we are going to lose business," said Raja Ali, behind the counter of his Bala Avenue convenience store Wednesday. "It wasn't big crowds, but it was bringing people to the block."

The Lower Merion Conservancy listed the Bala Theatre as No. 2 on its preservation watch list in 2013. Preservation coordinator JulieAnn Murphy said that because of the upheaval, "this will certainly be a property we discuss and consider relisting."

Howard Haas, a movie aficionado who grew up around the Bala, said the building was also important to the regional cinema scene.

"It is the very last movie palace in the Delaware Valley that is in the Egyptian or any other very exotic style," he said. "It has a balcony and pretty major seating capacity. Even in the last decade, it has served as a major art house theater for openings in Montgomery County."

As a patron, Haas said, he had seen the occasional roof leaks and the shabby chairs. Like many old theaters, it's also long overdue for a conversion from 35 mm film to digital projection.

The central auditorium, the largest and grandest room, had been out of commission for several months before the rest of the theater closed. But that's nothing out of the ordinary for a theater of its era, Haas said, and the historical and architectural details are well-preserved.

With three screens and decent ticket sales, all sides agreed it was a viable operation. But between attorneys' fees and emergency repairs, Wax said, he has lost money on the venture.

Wax said he offered to invest $500,000 for new chairs and the digital conversion if Sotolidis would give him a break on the $10,000-a-month rent.

"They rejected it out of hand," said Wax's attorney, James Cunilio.

From there, things only got uglier. In interviews this week, Sotolidis and Wax accused each other of changing the locks, almost burning the place down, and sabotaging the building or equipment.

The vitriol may be surprising, because both sides have a record of upholding the integrity of old theaters.

Wax is a third-generation movie house operator who has run the Narberth Theatre for decades and is reportedly having success with the Anthony Wayne in Wayne, which he acquired at the same time as the Bala.

When the Sotolidis family ran the Bala in the 1990s, it invested in a major renovation, splitting it from a 1,000-seat auditorium into three screening rooms.

Isaak Sotolidis' brother Constantine won high praise after the renovation for respecting the historic architecture and preserving the character of the theater at a time when other owners were slapping up cheap walls to maximize space.

Wax said Isaak Sotolidis had always viewed the Narberth as a rival, and was angry when he learned Wax had taken over the Bala lease from a previous tenant.

"There was a competitive atmosphere between the two of us," Wax said. "But it was more of a one-sided dislike."

Sotolidis said the lease should not have been sold without giving him the first right to buy it back. But he would not say Wednesday whether he would be willing to take over the theater operations again.

His suit is asking for about $800,000 in unpaid rent. Wax's counterclaim asks for $1 million in lost profits.

"It's been a nightmare. They'll say the opposite, this guy wasn't paying his bills," said Cunilio, Wax's attorney. "Well, we had a crumbling building, everything is obsolete, and . . . they put us out of business."

Cunilio said it could take two years for a court to sort the situation out.

In the meantime, a sign on the box office window attempts to mollify neighbors: "We be back soon."