At the turn of the 20th century Lansdowne’s commercial district was largely limited to the corners of Lansdowne and Baltimore Avenues, with a concentration of shops on the south side of Baltimore Avenue running to the railroad tracks. As the population in Lansdowne increased, so did the business district. By the 1920s, the district had begun to expand north on Lansdowne Avenue, and in the mid 1920s, Blanchepierre, the home of local attorney Francis Taylor, was demolished to make way the largest and grandest building in the commercial district, The Lansdowne Theater.
The Stanley Warner Company and Herbert Effinger commissioned renowned and prolific theater architect William H. Lee to design a 1300-seat movie theater in the heart of Lansdowne’s Central Business District. Based in Philadelphia, Lee designed more than 80 movie houses one as far away as Hawaii. Designed in the popular Hollywood Moorish style, the $250,000 theater was opened just before the advent of the “talkies” and harkens to the days of romantic silent films. Visitors moved through the front doors, up an incline, and into a Moorish style courtyard with fountains at each end. Large lighting fixtures hung in the lobby, which opened to the grand auditorium. With its elaborately painted ceiling, grand chandelier,balconies, and large proscenium, the theater is a feast for the eyes.
The Lansdowne Theater opened on June 1, 1927, featuring the silent film “Knockout Riley” starring Richard Dix. The opening event was overseen by John J. McGuirk, president of the Stanley Company, the predecessor of Warner Brothers. Mr. McGuirk described The Lansdowne as “the best example of suburban theatre construction around Philadelphia.” Adding to the excitement of the day was an appearance by Miss Lansdowne, who flew over the theater in a biplane, dropping roses to the audience below. (That year Miss Lansdowne happened to be an exchange student from Sweden.) Films were shown Monday through Saturday at 2:30, 7:00, and 9:00 p.m. Ticket prices ranged from 15¢ to 35¢.
The Harrison Brothers Construction built the theater as well as several other buildings in the neighborhood. When the building opened in 1927, first floor retail tenants included local resident and florist William Leonard, Lansdowne Bootery, Crowley Furniture Company, and a tailor. A few years later the Harrison Brothers would purchase the theater from Stanley Warner Equity and leased it to various operators into the 1960s.
Many people remember the famous Lansdowne Theater organ which originally accompanied silent movies and then was played nightly before shows and during special events. The organ was manufactured by the W.W. Kimball Co. of Chicago at a cost of $20,000 and was the last to be installed in a theater in the Philadelphia region. The organ was first played by one of the best known organists of the day, Leonard “Melody Mac” MacLean. According to a number of newspaper accounts, the organ was silenced in 1937 and sat under a tarpaulin in front of the theater’s orchestra pit until the early 1960s when area residents Bill Greenwood, W.E. Stinger, Jr., and W. Crawford undertook a restoration of the instrument. After sitting idle for 25 years the organ returned to service on February 24, 1963. Volunteer theater organists from throughout the Philadelphia area played a 15 minute concert the organ nightly before every show. The organ, known as a “band’ organ operated a host of additional musical instruments kept in the small balconies on either side of the stage: two xylophones, a marimba, a metal harp, a glockenspiel, chimes, drums, cymbals, tambourines, castanets and triangles among others. The organ could also could produce silent movie effects including birds, a fire gong, car horns, sirens, sleigh bells, police whistle, and wood blocks that simulated the sound of galloping horses. The last major concert featuring the organ was held on November 18, 1975, with Radio City organist James Paulin at the keyboard. The organ was sold to Bill Greenwood and removed from the theater in the late 1970s. The organ has since changed ownership several more times.
While the theater was primarily a movie house, it did host live performances on its stage. On the first anniversary of the theater’s opening Lansdowne’s Albert Clinton Wunderlich American Legion Post 65 Youth Bugle Corps performed on stage. Through the years there would be other well-known entertainers from throughout the Philadelphia area including the well-known Bobby Heath a songwriter, lyricist and orchestra leader performed before a sold out audience. On September 7, 1980 Harry Chapin performed at a benefit concert for Congressman Bob Edgar at The Lansdowne.
The offices on the second floor of the theater served as the offices of a number of healthcare professionals over the years including longtime Lansdowne dentist Dr. Murray and Dr. A. Singer, optometrist. In the 1980s, Len Cella, a house painter from Broomall, constructed an 80 seat screening room on the second floor of the theater building. Mr. Cella produced the very cleaver “Moron Movies” which were later shown on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.”
Sara Gail, who managed the theater on behalf of the Harrison family previously, purchased the theater in 1979 and operated it until 1986. In 1986, it was sold to the Lansdowne Theatre Associates, Inc. which was led by Philadelphia attorney and Lansdowne resident Jerry Raff, who closed the theater for much of 1986 to complete largely cosmetic renovations. On July 3, 1987, during a showing of Beverly Hill Cops II, an electrical fire broke out in the basement of one of the building’s retail stores. The 100 patrons were safely evacuated from the theater, but significant damage had been done to the electrical system that serviced the auditorium. Raff and his partners continued to make repairs, but the project was never able to regain a financial footing. Ownership was assumed by Bell Savings and Loan in 1989 which had extended financing for the project. Bell Savings and Loan was taken over by the Resolution Trust Corporation in 1991. The building was purchased at auction by 29-37 North Lansdowne, Inc. The corporation made repairs to the retail and office spaces and hoped to restore and reopen the theater.
There have been a number of individuals and organizations that have sought to purchase and restore the theater over the past 20 years. One organization, the Lansdowne Center for the Performing Arts offered performing arts education programming in the second floor screening room. The HLTC is grateful to all of these people and organizations who have kept the theater in the foreground.
Recognizing the theater’s historical and architectural significance and its potential to serve as a major catalyst for the reinvigoration of Lansdowne’s Central Business District, the Greater Lansdowne Civic Association and the Lansdowne Economic Development Corporation established the non-profit Historic Lansdowne Theater Corporation to purchase, stabilize, and restore the theater in pursuit of the dream of reopening The Lansdowne. Using a grant secured from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development through the leadership of State Representative Nicholas Micozzie, the HLTC purchased the building in 2007. Thus far, much-needed repairs to the roof have been made, a fire detection system has been installed throughout, obsolete and unused mechanical systems have been removed, second floor offices have been renovated, and retail stores have been brought into compliance with building codes.
In recognition of the historical and architectural significance of the building, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.