Is Philly's Prince Music Theater Facing Its Finale Ultimo?

By Kenneth Jones
June 30, 2010

The debt-saddled Prince Music Theater — a rare American regional theatre devoted to the production of musicals — was converted into a cinema in recent weeks and is showing Disney's "Toy Story 3" in order to pay the bills.



The Philadelphia company's two-venue home opened in 1999 at Chestnut Street on the Avenue of the Arts as a place for the creation of new musicals and the revival of old shows, plus cabaret evenings, but fell on hard times recently. The bank that owns the mortgage is seeking to put the facility up for auction. The Prince was not able to meet its mortgage payments in recent years.

The Summer Cinema Series "is part of the Prince's strategy to keep the theatre self-supporting, to fulfill its mission, and to serve a broad constituency from all segments of the community," according to an upbeat June statement from Prince Music Theater. "In addition to first-run features, the Prince will offer a rich mix of live musical performances interwoven with independent premieres, film festival favorites, documentaries, and special interactive events, both on the Alter Mainstage and in the Independence Foundation Black Box, Plans for live musical performances and additional film programming will be announced in the weeks ahead."

A similarly bright statement about future programming for the 2009-10 season was made in July 2009, and little appeared on the Prince stages during that time period.

The movie series "is one part of a three-year Prince Renaissance Plan aiming to rebuild and restore the Prince to full operations and return to full production, with a new business model and multiple revenue streams."

Marjorie Samoff, president of The Prince Music Theater, said in a June statement, "Over the past 12 years, we've worked with major film studios and hosted many premiere screenings. Now, we're delighted to expand that relationship and bring first-run feature films to downtown Philadelphia, and to showcase independent premieres that might otherwise not be seen in Philadelphia. We look forward to welcoming visitors and local residents from all across Philadelphia to come and enjoy great films all summer long."

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that mortgage holder TD Bank is expected to put the 446-seat theatre up for sheriff's sale shortly. That sale to commercial bidders has been looming since 2009.

The paper reported that the Prince owes about $4.83 million in long-term loans to the bank.

A source in Philadelphia told Playbill.com that the mayor's office and members of the arts and academic communities have explored a variety of options for trying to keep the Prince space open for theatre and performing arts productions in scenarios with and without the current leadership.

"Toy Story 3" screenings began there June 18.

In 2008-09, only two Prince-produced productions were offered: the Kander & Ebb revue The World Goes 'Round and a radio-play version of "It's a Wonderful Life."

The Prince announced on July 21, 2009, that it will offer a 2009-10 season of "original productions, Morgans Cabaret [shows], co-productions, plus performances, film festivals, and film programs by resident companies from September 2009 to July 2010."

Founded in 1984 as the American Music Theater Festival, the company spent its first 15 years without a home of its own. During that time, AMTF performed in different venues throughout Philadelphia.

By the late 1990s, the city began to undertake the transformation of Broad Street into the Avenue of the Arts. Under the leadership of Samoff, the American Music Theater Festival set its eyes on building itself a new home. They found it in the historic former Midtown Theater. AMTF converted the run-down relic into a two-venue complex.

In March 1999, under the new name Prince Music Theater, named in honor of legendary Broadway producer and director Hal Prince, who went to college in Philly, the company opened its new home. Prince is not associated with the venue otherwise.