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In Philly: Devon Theater cleans up its act: One-time adult moviehouse now caters to families

Here’s how far back I go with the Devon Theatre in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia. My grandmother would take me there as a little boy to see Hollywood films like Prince Valiant. Then in the mid-Sixties The Devon began showing Euro-shlock fests like Elke Sommer nudie pics and a winsome variety of New York-spun softcore Grindhouse sleaze epics. Great times. Then it went hardcore with the Philadelphia premiere of Deep Throat.

Philadelphia- www.philly.com- “It pays to wait,” is what the grand marquee atop the Devon Theater said back when it was a second-run movie theater.

After sitting vacant for the better part of a decade, the wait is over for the theater, which opens its doors to the public this weekend as the Devon Theater for the Performing Arts.

The one-time adult theater – known as the “Dirty Devon” to generations of Philadelphians – has undergone a major renovation to prepare for its opening gala tonight.

Located at 6333 Frankford Ave., the Devon is ready for its comeback as a family friendly theater, featuring Actor’s Equity artists performing in Broadway-style shows.

“They should start calling us the not-so-dirty Devon,” said Stephen McEntee of theatrical production company Fuse Management, joking about the Devon Theater’s less-than-clean reputation. Need proof?

Saturday’s inaugural production is “Nunsense,” the wildly popular comic musical about nuns who discover their cook has accidentally poisoned 52 of their own and their plan to stage a variety show to raise money to bury them. The play likely will be well-received in Devon’s Irish Catholic neighborhood.

The Devon Theater, erected in 1946 by the same architects who designed City Hall, started as a single-screen cinema. As multiplexes grew in popularity, the Devon couldn’t hold onto its audience. By the late 1960s, the Devon was screening adult flicks exclusively.

In 1978, community protests forced the theater’s owners to pull the plug on porn, and the Devon reinvented itself again – this time as a second-run movie house that screened previously released films.

A Mayfair movie fan purchased the Devon and showed classic titles there in the late 1990s, but after a few years it closed for good and fell into disrepair.

In the summer of 2004, the Mayfair Community Development Corporation (MCDC) purchased the Devon, along with six retail properties adjacent to the theater on the 6300 block of Frankford Avenue, as part of a $6 million revitalization project.

With a combination of city, state and local funding, and help from numerous community groups, the MCDC purchased the theater building for about $800,000. Over the next two years, they “rebuilt the theater from the ground up,” said Michael Pickering, the Devon’s artistic director.

The facility, which originally had 700 seats, has shrunk to 400 to accommodate the modern stage, lighting and sound package. The seats were widened, too, from 18 to 22 inches.

“We have a wonderful array of grays and blacks,” Pickering said of the interior color scheme. “[It’s] a warm and comfortable environment . . . focusing attention to the stage where all of the action really takes place.”

The theater is now fully ADA compliant from the elevator to the listening devices, allowing everyone to enjoy the Devon experience to the fullest.

The theater includes an 18-seat VIP loft for special events. “We’re going to hold storybook readings [for children] once or twice a month,” Pickering said.

Fashion shows, stand-up comedy, corporate affairs and even amateur boxing are planned. “We’re sort of a speedboat, not a luxury liner,” said Brian Patrick King, executive director of the MCDC.

And prices will be reasonable, too. “Nunsense” has $25 matinees and $35 evening performances. The theater’s Web site promises that the shows will be family friendly – don’t expect the avant garde or “for adults only” material. The next show, opening May 14, is another classic, Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple.”

One way the theater will reach out to the community is through its Camp Devon, a two-week performing-arts summer program for youth.

There’s even a six-week summer theater for adults – nonprofessional and aspiring actors will be able to perform in an amateur production of a musical. This summer it will be “The Music Man.”

The theater has created about 25 jobs, lured an art gallery to the neighborhood and fostered local spirit. “Volunteers have come forward in significant numbers to support the arts in their community and to ensure the success and longevity of the Devon,” said Mike Lally, Devon’s general manager.

The MCDC is hopeful that if the theater is a success it will spur continued development, bringing new restaurants and stores to Frankford Avenue. “The community is really rallying around the project,” King said. “This’ll be seen as the model project for the avenue.” *

“Nunsense,” Devon Theater for the Performing Arts, 6333 Frankford Ave., 8 p.m. tomorrow, 2 p.m. Sunday, $25-$35, then Thursday through Saturday nights and matinees on Saturday and Sundays through April 19. Tickets: 215-338-6300 or www.devontheater.org.

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