Charting What’s Next At The Royal Theater—Again

November 12, 2013 | by Bradley Maule


Then-new mural adoring the façade of the Royal Theater, 2005 | Photo: Bradley Maule

Then-new mural adoring the façade of the Royal Theater, 2005 | Photo: Bradley Maule

By most measures, last night’s public meeting hosted by the South of South Neighborhood Association and South Street West Business Association regarding the future of the Royal Theater–and more notably its past–went surprisingly smoothly. What could have been a volatile discussion on the historic but troubled venue, or worse, a gentrification debate underlined by class and race, came off more as of an info session outlining the building’s history, Michael Singer’s poor stewardship of the Royal from 1975 until 1998 (when the Preservation Alliance purchased it), and the last 13 years of big ideas, during which time Kenny Gamble’s Universal Companies has owned the building.

Universal, represented by president & CEO Rahim Islam and executive vice president Shahied Dawan, shared a chronology of the proposals they’ve put forward for redeveloping the Royal, a somewhat defensive preface before explaining their latest plans, which include demolition of all but the South Street façade and the creation of 7,000 sq ft of retail space and 30 rental units upstairs, as well as six market-rate townhouses Kater Street (with garages accessed by one curb cut) and 13 parking spaces.


Hidden City Festival: Performance of Re-Sounding at the Royal Theatre on South Street, 2009 | Photo: Jacques-Jean Tiziou /

While this seems like an anticlimactic solution for what many claim was once Philadelphia’s center of African-American culture, what may have once been worth saving is simply gone. After listing the various proposals, including a Scribe Video Center for film and theater, a Pennrose-Parkway-Universal partnership for a South Street West entertainment district, an anchor for the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, and a House of Blues–all of which fell through for being cost prohibitive–Universal ended the presentation with a photo of the state of the Royal’s interior taken last week. It is, in a word, dire.

It was already empty and deteriorating in 2009, when the Royal Theater was one of nine sites to host the inaugural Hidden City Festival. “At this point, there’s no purpose in bringing the Royal Theater back because there’s nothing left of it,” says Thaddeus Squire, Hidden City’s founder (also the founder and managing director of CultureWorks Greater Philadelphia). “It’s unfortunate, but we can’t fill the theaters we already have in Center City,” he says, citing the struggles of the Clef Club of Jazz and the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, both within three blocks of the Royal.

Carl Dranoff, whose Dranoff Properties has along with Universal Companies propelled development southward on the Avenue of the Arts, echoes Squire’s sentiment. “If [redeveloping theaters] was easy and everyone could do it, everyone would,” Dranoff says. “You see the Boyd Theatre, [and] the Prince declared bankruptcy.”

“The Boyd is a different beast,” Squire observes, “where there is substantial detail that can be saved.” Florida’s iPic Entertainment seems determined to not do that, as their major redevelopment would gut the old palace and replace it with hyper-modern, upscale amenities. At this stage at the Royal, “I think anything is good there,” Squire says. “The preservation community has bigger battles to fight.”

Exposed to the elements, 2003 | Photo: Bradley Maule

Exposed to the elements, 2003 | Photo: Bradley Maule

After languishing for over 40 years, the fight to save the Royal Theater appears to have run out of steam. One gathered that sense from Universal’s Islam and Dawan, whose presentation lauded Gamble’s musical accomplishments and the fact he relocated from the suburbs back to this, his home neighborhood. They also stressed the $50 million they’ve put into developing over 200 housing units as the old South Philly neighborhood has become the Graduate Hospital Area, or G-Ho, or Southwest Center City, call it what you will. Even as the area’s value has skyrocketed, the Royal has stayed mired in big dreams whose numbers couldn’t add up.

Now, likely spurred on by the Act 135 petition filed by neighbor Juan Levy nominating Ori Feibush to be conservator of the property, Universal has a renewed urgency to make the numbers add up. To help do so, they’ve brought on Carl Dranoff as an adviser. “A friend and adviser is a better way to put it,” Dranoff tells Hidden City, “because we’ve worked on a number of projects in the past. They’ve asked me to help devise a plan to pass muster with neighborhood advocacy groups and the historic preservation community.” The latter includes the Preservation Alliance, from whom Universal purchased the Royal with an easement in place for only the façade, and the Philadelphia Historical Commission, who would need to approve demolition of the rest of the building.

That’s still a ways off, as last night’s was only the first of several meetings hosted by SOSNA and SSWBA on the project. Then there are the historical commission rulings. Then there are zoning variances. Then there’s the financing. “We hope at the end of this process, we have a financeable project,” Universal’s Islam told the crowd last night. “Change is hard for everyone, but we get it done.”

The day after yet another development for the Royal from Universal aimed to get footing, another reached the finish line. Universal and the City Office of Housing and Community Development this afternoon announced next week’s ribbon cutting on the LEED Silver Nicetown Court II, a $19M mixed-use development adjacent to Wayne Junction Station.

* * *

The Royal Theater was designed by Frank Hahn and built by Abraham Wax in 1919 as a one-of-a-kind African-American entertainment venue. In its 50 years of operation before closing from the threat of the never-built Crosstown Expressway, it hosted live performances from Bessie Smith to Billy Paul, and was the site of neighborhood talent shows and radio broadcasts. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.


About the Author

Bradley Maule Bradley Maule is a former co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and the creator of Philly Skyline. He's a native of Tyrone, Pennsylvania, and he's hung his hat in Shippensburg, Germantown, G-Ho, Fishtown, Portland (Oregon), Brewerytown, and now Mt. Airy. He just can't get into Twitter, but he's way into Instagram @mauleofamerica.


  1. Jason says:

    To increase transparency of this project, the financial records on how Universal spent all the money that was already given to them to save the Royal should be released.

  2. Sassafrass says:

    Rah-rah! I hate these rah-rah sessions conducted for the media. At exactly what point did the theater become unsalvageable, and how is the owner at that time going to be held culpable for the destruction of this historic building through neglect? It’s the oldest game in the book, isn’t it? Isn’t this what is being done to the historic Metropolitan Opera House? This is exactly why the Boyd has to be saved in its original form. Any present-day difficulty in filling venues is NO excuse. We are looking at timeless resources here. New theaters such as these cannot be built. Why would someone want to rent the Prince theater? It’s worse than a movie theater. It has no charm or character at all.

    Universal is obviously trying to save face after perpetrating massive fraud, though Michael Singer is likely the one responsible for the destruction of the theater. Universal likely knew this all along and merely waited until it could be excused. Well, they should be denied completely the opportunity to profit from redevelopment whatsoever. But this is Philadelphia.

    And just what to Gamble’s musical accomplishments in commercial music have to do with anything? He was rich long ago. That’s not contributing to the community. Bill Cosby does more for the community and he doesn’t even live here. We will apparently lose the Royal, are about to lose the Boyd, and will ultimately lose the Met as well. Never mind that this, the city that publicly holds the gold standard for classical music sound for the world, has not one venue with great acoustics for our orchestra, not ONE. Only real leadership will stand up to these loudmouths and hold them responsible for destroying our patrimony, only real leaders will call them on the public carpet and punish them for their thievery.

    This is exactly what is wrong with Philadelphia and continues to be wrong, and why this will never be a first-rate, world-class city. I am sick of it. I wish I had never moved here to see this. Pigs building stys for the public to feed at. They all need to be exposed for exactly who they are, developer, politician, entertainer, investor, every last one of them. Who is brave enough to do it? No one in Philadelphia, that’s for sure. I guess we are doomed to another Rizzo mayoralty then, because Philly sure gets to sleep in the bed it makes for itself. Everyone is to blame, then. Every parent who doesn’t fight to improve their children or their schools. Every teacher who doesn’t fight to teach. Every principal who doesn’t fight the School Board. Every council member who accepts the status quo. Every mayor who makes no real changes. Every governor who supports the power structure. Every self-serving moneybag, every crooked dealer, every criminal, every unethical, amoral adult. You are all to blame. You can look down on no one, because you are the bottom.

  3. Ken says:

    I can’t speak to the history of the Royal, but the Boyd Theater situation is quite straightforward.

    Bottom line, there are already too many “old-time” theater houses in Philadelphia. The Walnut Street and Forrest Theaters aren’t going anywhere, nor are the Academy of Music or the Kimmel Center, which actually contains 2 performance spaces. Then there’s the Wilma, the Suzanne Roberts, the Annenberg Center, the Merriam, the Prince, the Plays and Players, the Arts Bank, the Irvine Auditorium. This doesn’t even count the live music venues.

    That’s why no one wants to buy the Boyd and restore it. You can’t make money doing it, which is why developers want to stay away. And the City, State and Federal Governments would buy it and do…what, exactly? To turn it into a museum? What? Preservation for preservation’s sake is meaningless. The current theater situation is similar to the current church situation. Too many buildings, not enough uses.

    Time to let it go.

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