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Mobtown Beat

Third Stage

Will Live Theater be the Charm for Reviving the Problematic Playhouse?

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 2/6/2002

For the third time in five years, the marquee of the 56-year-old Playhouse movie theater in the first block of W. 25th St. has come to life. About three weeks ago, black wooden letters reading opening feb. 8 lost in yonkers appeared on the east face of the two-sided marquee. And they don't advertise the screen adaptation of the Neil Simon play: Following two short-lived attempts to revive the Playhouse as a film venue, live theater is coming to the Charles Village hall. The Paragon Theatre Company has leased the 340-seat auditorium and intends to make the old cinema its new home.

Inside, sawdust still covers the red carpet at the front of the house, where Paragon has constructed a 20-foot-by-30-foot plywood stage. (Since the Playhouse was built for film, not live theater, a couple of rows of seats had to be removed to accommodate the stage.) A pair of frumpy couches and a vintage console radio are arranged on the new stage as part of the set for the Simon comedy, set in a 1940s Yonkers, N.Y., apartment. What isn't in place yet is the new lighting equipment Paragon has ordered from a variety of theatrical supply houses.

"I'm starting to get a little nervous," says Greg Kemper, the theater company's 34-year-old artistic director. "They should have been in two weeks ago. We should still open on time, though."

Kemper estimates that Paragon has spent more than of $10,000 converting the movie house into a theatrical venue. And there's still work to be done.

"We don't have much of a backstage for now, but we're working on that," he says. "For this first show, we're going to operate dressing rooms in a curtained-off area on the side of the stage."

Kemper and his father, Herman Kemper, founded Paragon in 1998. It began as an itinerant company, performing productions everywhere from a Mount Vernon nightclub to a Pikesville coffeehouse. Later in '98, the company settled into Crownsville's 65-seat Trifles restaurant, where it staged more than a dozen plays in dinner-theater format. But Greg Kemper says he's "always been looking for a place in the city" as a home for Paragon. He happened to drive by the Playhouse last year, and slipped a note under the door inquiring as to its availability. That led the Kempers to Bryan Bok Ok, who had purchased the building in the fall of '99 for $185,000. After spending some $40,000 to $50,000 on improvements and new projection equipment, Ok renamed the moldering movie house the Kobko Playhouse Theatre and screened films from his native Korea (Mobtown Beat, Jan. 12, 2000)--an undertaking that met with mixed results at best.

"Sometimes, I would only get 30 people in here," says Ok, who also runs a real-estate brokerage business out of a small office adjacent to the theater's lobby. "One problem is that this space is so big, the electric bills got to be too much. [Paragon] is a good match for me. They can show plays, and after they finish a [production] I can show cinema. We can cooperate with each other."

The Kobko has been dark since November, but Ok is ready to get back into business with broader programming. "My thinking now is to show foreign movies--films from Europe, Asia, South America, Africa, all kinds of international movies," he says.

The partners hope the dual use will make the erstwhile neighborhood movie house more viable. The building's size, age, and lack of off-street parking hamper its use as an entertainment venue in the age of suburban multiplexes. The original Playhouse closed in 1985, and the building was used as a church between '89 and '94. Three years later, a group leased the theater as a venue for African-American films, calling it the Heritage Cinema Playhouse. That venture lasted a year; the Heritage has since relocated to a former nightclub on East North Avenue.

The Kempers have their work cut out for them making this old-school cinema work as live theater, but they're optimistic about prospects for what will be, as of Feb. 8, the largest community theater in the city, at least in terms of seating.

"It's a good leap and I'm a little nervous," says Greg Kemper, who is acting in the debut show. "But I feel pretty good about the space. I feel good about what we have to offer in terms of theater. I've worked in theaters with 1,200 seats, so I'm pretty comfortable working in large spaces."

Paragon anticipates a five-play season, with showings Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons. "We're still planning the season, but our next show is going to be The Importance of Being Earnest," Kemper says. "We plan a variety of things: classics, some new stuff, and hopefully musicals." Kemper says the company plans to apply for nonprofit status so that its bottom line can be supplemented by donations and grants.

As to more immediate concerns, Kemper contends there is sufficient street parking in the vicinity to accommodate patrons, though the theater is looking into gaining access to a number of parking lots in the area. Valet parking may also be an option. And he is hopeful that the urban environs of lower Charles Village won't put theatergoers off. "I think the neighborhood is cleaning up," he says.

Vincent Lancisi, head of the Paragon's nearest theatrical neighbor, Everyman Theatre, can offer some encouraging words. Everyman moved into a 161-seat space on North Charles Street about eight blocks south of the Playhouse in the fall of 1996. Some lean years followed. At times, Lancisi says, "just keeping the lights on and the doors open" was an effort. But Everyman survived and now thrives, with 2,400 paid subscribers.

"I welcome them to the neighborhood and I think it's great they're using that old cinema," says Lancisi, whose own company resides in a rehabbed former bowling alley. "I think each theater creates an appetite and awareness of [the dramatic arts] that spills over to other theaters."

Paragon's "biggest challenge," Lancisi adds, "is getting the word out and developing an audience. Theaters are a lot like restaurants--the best advertising is word of mouth."

The Paragon Theatre Company's production of Lost in Yonkers runs Feb. 8-March 10 at the Playhouse Theatre. For tickets and information, call (410) 467-1966.

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