Inside the Circle

 

Crouching up against the El in Frankford is the Circle Theater, once a Spanish-Baroque confection, now a sneaker store with a secret. Opened in 1929, barely a sidewalk-width separates the old movie palace from the Margaret-Orthodox station. Despite this crowding, architects Hoffman and Henon gave the building an elaborate façade of twisted columns and terra-cotta ornament.

The real surprise, though, is inside. The Circle was the only entirely “atmospheric” theater in Philadelphia, meaning that the ceiling was painted with a trompe-l’oeil sky. When movies were shown, the “sky” would twinkle with constellations of electric stars and was traversed by projected clouds. This was not the only deception. Elaborate false building facades ringed the auditorium. Built five feet out from the wall, the facades were embellished with working fountains, stained-glass and artificial trees. The whole was supposed to create the illusion of sitting outdoors at night in a Spanish courtyard. The illusion was made more compelling by the theater’s size: it takes up an entire city block, and could seat 2,991 people.

The sneaker store is a growth within the larger body of the theater, a small, rectangular box made out of brick and concrete block that was built into the auditorium’s massive open space. The seating is gone, and it appears the balcony is as well. This is what remains intact.

Photo: Peter Woodall, 2010

Photo: Peter Woodall, 2010

Photo: Peter Woodall, 2010

 

Photo: Peter Woodall, 2010

Photo: Peter Woodall, 2010

Photo: Peter Woodall, 2010

Photo: Peter Woodall, 2010

Photo: Peter Woodall, 2010

Photo: Peter Woodall, 2010

About the author

John Vidumsky has been exploring abandoned spaces for as long as he can remember. He recently received an MA in history from Temple University, where he studied 20th-century Russian history. Currently, he works for Hidden City as Head of Research and Client Services. In his spare time, John plays Celtic harp, runs a drum circle and does photography.

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15 Comments


  1. Hello,

    How do I get into that building? I would like to shoot some footage in there… thanks.

    • Check out the Palace Theater in Louisville, KY for a theater in this same style which has totally been preserved. Pictures are in various internet locations. The Louisville theater began life as the Lowes-United Artists theater. It has the same side decorations inside in 3D, twinkling lights overhead, etc. Same spanish style decorations. As the movie business died off downtown business men bought the place and converted it to a very ritzy dinner theater featuring plays, stage acts (Allison Krause lately)and occasional movie marathons.

      Opened about the same time as the Philly one.

    • Contact the owner, you can look them up on the property listings at the L&I website. http://www.phila.gov/li/Pages/default.aspx

  2. John,
    How to contact you? Would like to chat.

  3. John,

    Theaters of this era typically had theater pipe organs installed.
    The console would be in front of the stage while the pipes and other musical instruments were housed in one or two chambers way up high behind ornate grille-work to either side of the stage. In the photos I see grille-work way up on the facade. Do you know if they contain pipes?

    Regards,
    Mark

  4. Also the Majestic Theater in San Antonio (where the symphony still plays):

    http://www.majesticempire.com/virtualMajestic.php

  5. It looks almost salvageable. I knew we had only one atmospheric theater here in Philly, but I didn’t know anything still existed of it, which is funny, as I actually think I was taken to that sneaker store as a small child!

  6. An exterior shot might have been helpful for those of us not entirely familiar with the area…

  7. Hi thesestreets.This thearter’s exterior is still visible from the El’s Margaret and Orthodox station.Look for the huge brick building with the watertower tower at the rear.The facade at El level above what was the marque still has some of the ornate features.It was quite an experience to view a movie in this theater.The theater was a show itself.As a very young child I saw many movies there.I loved the stars!I remember when it was converted to a John’s Baragin Basement store in the mid 1950’s.I went into the store always wondering what was behind the rear wall.Now I know.If older theaters interest you, you may want to to contact the group attempting to restore the Boyd.Howard Hass may allow you acess.Another example of a partially intact theater is the Viking/CVS at 19th and Chestnut.You need to ask for acess to the restrooms.Another is north of the Circle site and was called the Roosevelt.The structure is stlii there but offices are now housed inside the structure.In South Jersey there is the Collinswood visible from the Lindenwold line.Also in Philadelphia on the Temple campus is the Uptown theater.There may be an on going project to save and restore this one.Thanks Jack

  8. Many thanks for this article, pictures, and helpful comments. I just missed going to this place, since I grew up in the 1950s on Granite Street a block from the old Ellis Theatre [where I briefly had a job as an usher a few years later when I was in high school].

    I do not remember the Circle, but do remember the Roosevelt Theater up the next block [I waited in a line that went ’round the block to attend the opening of “Old Yeller” there], and during the 1970s lived in an apartment over Phila Soft Pretzel Bakery at 4733 Frankford, one of the storefronts that screen the former theater complex [the Roosevelt had been turned into a Sears Surplus Store and was later a Social Security branch office]. I also remember John’s Bargain store.

    I still remember many of the old facades on “The Avenue”, including my favorite, the colorful tile work of a former Horn and Hardart “Automat” that no longer occupied one of the storefronts near the Circle site.

  9. I remember that my father used to take us to H&H all the time, I also remember Johns Bargain Store, how about the icecream/candy store? My girlfriends and I used to get a scoop of ice cream there after school.

  10. The theatre had a 3 manual kimball organ kpo 6943 installed in 1929.A friend of mine was offer the hole organ for $500.00 in the 1950s but had no were to go with it., Bob.

  11. What an amazing find! Those pictures are spectacular, and just a bit creepy. It’s really too bad that such a gem of creativity has been left to degrade as much as it has. Thanks for the fascinating information!

Trackbacks

  1. What remains: Inside Frankford’s old Circle Theater « NEast Philly
  2. A Peek Inside the Logan Theater | Hidden City Philadelphia
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