Inside This Manayunk Hardware Supply House? A Movie Palace

 

The exterior of the Loring Building Products warehouse, the former Empress Theater, on Main Street in Manayunk. | Photo: Philip Jablon

Earlier this year, Terry Loring pulled down some of the signage on the front of her family’s construction material warehouse on Main Street in Manayunk. Behind forty years’ worth of Loring Building Products signs she found the word “Empress” carved into the façade, along with subtle neoclassical details. She decided to highlight the name when she had the building repainted, in homage to the warehouse’s past as one of Philadelphia’s grandest neighborhood theaters.

The Empress opened in 1914 as a mixed-use vaudeville/motion picture theater that seated 1,500 people. At some point during its early years it was purchased by the prolific Stanley Company of America theater chain, founded by Philadelphia-born theater magnates Jules and Stanley Mastbaum. Stanley was the largest theater chain in the country during the Golden Age of motion pictures. In Philadelphia, the Stanley Co. either built or eventually purchased some of the most exquisite theaters in town, including the Mastbaum, Stanton, and the eponymous Stanley Theater. Eventually the company was bought out by Warner Bros. and became Stanley-Warner Theaters.

Photo: Philip Jablon

By all accounts, the Empress was the premiere entertainment venue of Manayunk in its heyday. Employees of Loring Building Products claimed that W.C. Fields and the Three Stooges performed skits on the Empress’s stage during its vaudevillian years.

As live shows fell out of favor and the film medium grew, the Empress was leased to the Riviera Amusement Co., and served exclusively as a movie theater under the company moniker The Riviera Theater. The number of seats declined to 700. In 1941, Stanley Co. sold the building to Riviera Amusements for $64,900. By then, the theater had lost much of its former shine.

Photo: Philip Jablon

“For a while it became what was known as a ‘scratch’ theater,” said current owner Terry Loring, the daughter of the Loring Building Products founder. “Movie-goers would come out scratching themselves from flea bites.”

The decline of the Empress/Riviera over the next two decades mirrored a nationwide trend: all across the country, once-opulent movie palaces struggled against a waning manufacturing sector and the growing popularity of television as a leisure-time alternative to the silver screen. Theaters unable to afford expensive technology upgrades–such as Cinerama or Cinemascope systems–saw their up-market clientele switch to theaters that could. The phenomenon is not unlike what’s happening to theaters today with the rise of digital projection and 3D movie technology.

The Riviera screened its last film in 1962.

By the mid-1960’s the aging theater was serving as a live music venue. This is where local legend gets tangled with fact. As the story goes, a man dropped one too many hits of acid during a Jimi Hendrix concert and decided he could fly. He allegedly nosedived off the Riviera balcony and died on impact.

Empress Theater balcony | Photo: Philip Jablon

Rumors of drug dealing at the venue led acting police commissioner Frank L. Rizzo to order the club to cease and desist. One can almost imagine Police Commissioner Rizzo arriving at the theater, night-stick in hand, to personally shut it down. This was the end of the Empress/Riviera’s life as a Manayunk hotspot.

All has been quiet at the Empress since Loring Building Products picked up the deed in the late 1960s. For more than 40 years, the company has used the building as an office, warehouse and distribution center.

Photo: Philip Jablon

Architectural remnants of the building’s past serve as a backdrop to current operations. The grand auditorium, once host to captive (if not itchy or stoned) crowds, now holds rows and stacks of construction materials. Above, molded plaster garlands adorn the walls and face of the balcony. An ornate proscenium, highlighted by a cherub-flanked cartouche at its peak, frames what was once a stage. Just below that, a mustard-yellow pleated curtain with the insalubrious admission of ‘ASBESTOS’–an early precaution against fires–dangles half-raised. Toward the foyer, evidence of the psychedelic past can be discerned in the form of a tie-dyed paint job near the ladies room.

Photo: Philip Jablon

Peeling psychedelic paint near the ladies’ room | Photo: Philip Jablon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the height of the real estate market in 2006-07, developers were eyeing the old theater with thoughts of restoration in mind. But those multimillion dollar plans fizzled when the bubble burst in 2008.

Thanks to the good stewardship of the Loring family, the former-Empress Theater endures, an elegant part of Manyunk history.

About the author

Philip Jablon is a photo-journalist who splits his time between his native Philadelphia and his surrogate Thailand. In 2010 he earned an M.A. in Sustainable Development from Chiang Mai University. Since 2008 he has built a photographic archive of stand-alone movie theaters across Southeast Asia as part of his Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project. He is interested in the architecture, development, and social history of both Philadelphia and Southeast Asia.

Send a message!



6 Comments


  1. Think I’m gonna cry. These theaters were the social hub of the neighborhood. At least the Boyd Theater can still be restored…
    Many former theaters experienced the same fate as the Empress, with the Poplar Theatre’s story being almost identical to that of the Empress. The brick and concrete edifice opened on the northeast corner of Sixth and Poplar as a silent movie theater. It had a capacity for over 850 people and an exceptional ventilation system: two big exhaust fans, twenty minor fans, and twenty doors and windows. Architect Louis Kahn played the piano at the Poplar in the teens and ’20s. It became wired for sound in 1929.
    When air conditioning was introduced in the 1930s, the Poplar became a well-liked summer hangout for the cost of six cents or a dime. Nevertheless, the theater closed in 1935. It reopened in the 1940s as the Poplar Cinema Art Theatre, showing foreign films, but wasn’t successful.
    In 1961, the building turned into a bindery and warehouse for Pearl Pressman Liberty Printers. Now a hundred years old, the old Poplar Theatre still stands, forlorn, empty and currently for sale, with its many doors and windows bricked up.

  2. I believe that the Empress became “Kaleidoscope” in the late 1960s. I saw Blood, Sweat & Tears there on two occasions, as well as a screening of The Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour.”

  3. I grew up in Manayunk and the theater was showing Three Stooges shorts and cartoons on Saturday afternoons in the late 1960’s. Parents could drop their kids off at the theater for a couple of hours of peace and quiet while the kids were entertained for a very modest price.

Trackbacks

  1. Lunchtime Quick Hits | Philadelphia Real Estate Blog
  2. The Empress of Manayunk | Theatre Historical Society Readerboard
  3. Patria Speights

Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

Recent Posts
Row House: Past And Its Future

Row House: Past And Its Future

June 20, 2017  |  Vantage

Contributor Hilary Jay dives deep into the evolution and politics of contemporary row house design with Interface Studio Architects > more

An Artful Adaptation In Bella Vista

An Artful Adaptation In Bella Vista

June 15, 2017  |  News

A contemporary art gallery and residence on Bainbridge Street goes green with reuse and sustainable renovation. John Henry Scott has the story > more

Behind The Bar At Dirty Frank's

Behind The Bar At Dirty Frank’s

June 13, 2017  |  The Shadow Knows

The Shadow saddles up to the bar at Dirty Frank's with the backstory on one of Philadelphia's most beloved dives > more

With New Penn's Landing Plan, A Central Park

With New Penn’s Landing Plan, A Central Park

June 12, 2017  |  News

Lost in the intense news cycle: major news about the at-long-last redevelopment of Penn's Landing. Nathaniel Popkin has a look > more

With Bloomsday Near, Remembering The Rosenbach Brothers

With Bloomsday Near, Remembering The Rosenbach Brothers

June 9, 2017  |  Vantage

Every year in June a crowd gathers outside of the Rosenbach Museum & Library to celebrate James Joyce's seminal literary masterpiece "Ulysses" with a block party and day full of public readings. Karen Chernick gives us the backstory on the Rosenbach Company and two rare book dealers whose legacy is enshrined on Delancey Place > more

The National? It's About To Reappear

The National? It’s About To Reappear

June 8, 2017  |  Buzz

The façade of the historic National Restaurant Supply Company building in Old City will be rebuilt as part of a 192-unit mixed-use development in Old City. Groundbreaking tomorrow > more