History

Summoning the Spirits of Film Row Through the Hexter Building

March 12, 2024 | by Susan Babbitt

The Hexter Buildking at 1320 Point Breeze Avenue is now home to The Tasty Toast diner. | Photos: Michael Bixler

Diners arriving at the The Tasty Toast on Point Breeze Avenue might not notice a small, mysterious sign above their heads: CLARENCE G. HEXTER BUILDING 1937. Hexter is not hard to identify. His headstone, inscribed 1882–1936, can be viewed online. Finding out what he did between those two dates led me back to the world of Jay Emanuel, a notable entrepreneur in the movie theater industry who had turned up during the jump from the fictitious New Yorker imitation in the film Kitty Foyle to the nonfictional Philadelphia imitation, Town Crier. Both the imaginary and the real magazine quickly folded, but the talented staff of Town Crier, including Emanuel, went on to find success elsewhere.

Jay Emanuel and Other Reel Fellows

The lively, close-knit community of theater owners, bookers, and suppliers, like the punchy, vivid advertising that brought crowds to the movie palaces once found in every town and neighborhood, comes to life in the 1934–36 issues of Emanuel’s trade magazine, The Philadelphia Exhibitor. In them, Hexter appears as an industry veteran, a wit, and a stalwart of the Independent Exhibitors Protective Association. He must have been a familiar figure on Vine Street between 12th and Juniper Streets, once the spine of Film Row.

A Sanborn fire insurance map shows film-related locations, notated in white dots, along and around Film Row between 1934-36. | Image courtesy of Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network 

Film Row, a single-industry district like Jewelers’ Row or Fabric Row on 4th Street, was not new in the 1930s. The Sanborn fire insurance maps for that stretch of Vine Street show four “Film Exchange” sites on the south side in 1916, as well as three theater-related businesses and 11 other sites, as well as one theater-related business, on the north side in 1917. Hexter was in the business by then, as a partner in Consolidated Booking Offices in 1910, headquartered in the Odd Fellows Temple, known by 1913 as the Parkway Building, at Broad and Cherry Streets. I narrow my focus on 1934-36 to take advantage of the multitude of local advertisements published in The Philadelphia Exhibitor. Of roughly 100 Philadelphia businesses advertised during those years, more than half were in the area covered by the map above. More than a dozen businesses were just outside the map, within four blocks, and the film folks, held celebrations nearby at the Broadwood Hotel at Broad and Wood Streets and the Lulu Temple at Broad and Spring Garden Streets.

Advertisements for businesses on and around Film Row published by The Philadelphia Exhibitor in the 1930s. | Images: Public Domain

Film Row had passed its heyday by the mid-1940s, although the 1942 land use map shows three “FILM DIST.” sites on blocks that have since dwindled into parking lots. The end was predicted in 1941 with news of what was to become the Vine Street Expressway. Today there are buildings at fewer than 10 of the sites tagged on the map. One survivor is the elegant Ballinger Building at 218 N. 13th Street.

The former Dixie Theater, opened in 1913 and closed in 1953, at 1224 Point Breeze Avenue. It is now occupied by Mt. Zion Pentecostal Church First Born of the Living God. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Film Row, once bustling and glamorous, is now nondescript and perhaps the last section of Center City that would come to anyone’s mind. However, the Clarence G. Hexter Building survives and thrives, but it is at 1320 Point Breeze Avenue, more than 20 blocks from Film Row. An explanation for the building’s resilience involves four theaters, three of which were operated by Hexter and his brother Jack, who was involved in the theaters before and after the death of Clarence. Their brother Bill was also involved when he was in town to help. Located along the busy commercial corridor was the former Dixie Theater (1912–53) at 1224 Point Breeze Avenue, the Pastime Theater (1911–53) at 1420 Point Breeze Avenue, and the Breeze, or Point Breeze Theater (1911–53) at 1638 Point Breeze Avenue which is now an empty lot.

21st Street and Point Breeze Avenue in 1961. A sign for Potamkin five and dime, located inside the Hexter Building, can be seen in the upper left corner. | Photo courtesy of PhillyHistory.org

There once was a theater on the site of the Hexter Building itself, the Premier (1912–31). Perhaps Hexter operated that theater as well and perhaps the buildings are one and the same. The footprint of the theater in the 1918 Sanborn fire insurance map resembles that of the Hexter Building in the 1942 land use map. Of what went on there between 1937 and when The Tasty Toast moved in, I can point to a photograph from 1961 that shows it as the Potamkin five and dime. Two surviving buildings–not a bad legacy for a veteran of Film Row.



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About the Author

Susan Babbitt studied medieval history at Berkeley and Cornell and began to appreciate the relics of the more recent past, like prismatic glass, street signage, and captive canted-corner columns, after coming to Center City in 1984 to be near the editorial office where she worked.

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