“I’ve discovered this amazing local theater troupe!” She told me.
I stifled a yawn.
Then she added, “....they do the whole thing in part of the lobby of a defunct movie palace!”
What was left of the yawn vanished. “Just the lobby?”
Before I knew it, I was on my way to Philly. I couldn’t quite picture how you could get an audience larger than twenty people into the lobby of any movie palace with the possible exception of one of the Wonder Theaters, or some such. They were big enough.
The former lobby of the Sedgewick Theater on Germantown Avenue in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Mt. Airy, is the current home of the theater company, Quintessence. Alexander Burns, its Artistic Director, has seen it through six packed seasons so far. A wide range of classic productions (Dr. Faustus, Alice in Wonderland, Mother Courage, you name it) in the round — or you might say “in the oblong”--play out on a platform which can be viewed from stadium risers on one of two sides of what’s left of the back part of the Sedgewick Theater’s copious lobby. Gazing up, as you wait for Shaw’s St. Joan to start, you can wonder at the lobby’s central chandelier suspended from a medallion of decorative grillwork, in a ceiling of red and gold radiating beams — all this still intact behind the lighting grid, just above the stage platform:
For the Quintessence patron, it’s intriguing to imagine how vast the theater itself must have been. You walk in off the street to a generous enclosed lobby which, according to Mr. Burns, who granted me an hour of his time, was once an open air recess with a ticket kiosk. As you pass from this created foyer to the portion of former-theater lobby that precedes the performance-space’s velvet curtains, large gold-framed mirrors, better than eight feet in height, frame your passage left and right. A former women’s lounge on the right serves as the company’s dressing room. Silver walls trimmed in gold Deco progressions are broken through with white plaster, having taken some water over the years. But, save for what has been described as “some holes in the skeleton” of the theater, the space seems dry and intact.
The Sedgewick was built by a prolific Philly theater architect, William Lee, in 1928, as a palace with a stage for live theater.What might have been a twenty-five hundred seat space never apparently saw the building of its own balcony. As a result, the Sedgewick, before being leveled off as a warehouse, held at best 1,600 under a soaring dome.
The warehouse. It’s sealed off from its former lobby by a solid wall, but thanks to the generosity of Quintessence’s House/Company Manager, Mara Burns, we made our way through a long side alley, and arrived at a loading platform which probably once served as an auditorium exit door. Above and to the left, a series of small provisional enclosures forms a village of warehouse storage areas — for vintage clothing, plumbing supplies and the like. Over all this, the proscenium arch, supported by what remains of its Deco-framed box, seems somehow to smile — if ironically — on the space’s current function. The singular most impressive remaining feature of what once was this vast performance space, is the center medallion, its filigreed layers of grillwork echoing the simpler ceiling of the old lobby Quintessence performs in.
Hats off to Alexander Burns and Quintessence! If he hadn’t happened to be walking past the place in 2006, when some folks were moving a couple of sofas out its rarely-open doors, he might never have gone in, and my sister would still be trekking to New York theaters. Instead, I’m getting in my car and heading south as often as they change production. Will Mr. Burns’ dream to build a blackbox theater in the warehouse space come true? Stay tuned, as we used to say, back when.
FLASHBACK FORTY YEARS:
Wednesday, May 19, 1976
Don’t Open the Window!
a.k.a. Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti
(Translation from Italian: I Do Not Profane the Sleep of the Dead) was on-screen at the St. George Theatre: "They Tampered with nature, now they must pay the price…"
(Text from the original listing:
"All Seats, All Times, $1.50, children 90 cents."
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