11 September 08: Mumbo Jumbo

WELLLLLLLLL . . . the neighborhoods which come together at Front & Girard last night got their first real taste of what may or may not become -- again -- the Jumbo Theater.

Avram Hornik, the Center City barman who developed what he described in his own words, "places I'd like to hang out" including Lucy's Hat Shop, both Drinker's (Old City and Rittenhouse), Loie, Noche and the late Soma and Protolounge, made his case to a public organized by four community groups: Fishtown Neighbors Association, Northern Liberties Neighbors Assocation, New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC) and Kensington South Neighborhood Advisory Council. That the four neighborhoods with varying goals and varying populaces came together is a feat in itself, as noted by State Representative Curtis Thomas, who showed up long enough to see part of Hornik's presentation before announcing that, thanks to a petition filed by some neighbors, he will try to block the liquor license Hornik has applied for.

Great. Before the evening's grand unveiling -- of ideas, unfinished plans -- is even fully presented, we learn that Harrisburg is already against it.

It's evident from the get-go that this petition is led by a woman named Juliette, who started a thread at Fishtown.us -- with the alarmist title "A Nightclub with a capacity for 1200 at Front & Girard? Can this be right??" -- and who came to the meeting armed with propaganda printed on pink paper including (A) a nine year old PBJ article which had little to do with Hornik, (B) the one negative comment out of seven on Citysearch's Drinker's Tavern page, and (C) a copy of the city's North Delaware Avenue Area Special District Councils (i.e. the rules for Del Ave nightclubs), which doesn't even apply to the Jumbo.

Oh, community meetings!

Here's what's up. The Global Thrift store, on the northeast corner of Front & Girard, directly under the Girard el station, has been closed and boarded for a couple years now. Hornik wants to restore it -- strip off the ugly drywall inside, remove the box that was tacked on to the exterior's otherwise handsome structure -- and make it a rock venue akin to World Café Live. Right next door is a shuttered KFC. Across the street is Club Ozz, a go-go bar. Out front of the closed thrift store, guys sell bootleg Air Jordans, football jerseys and baseball caps.

Once upon a time, this was the bustling Jumbo Theatre, a 1,200 seat movie house designed by Hoffman & Henon, architects of the Boyd and several other Philadelphia theaters. Check Philly History for archival photos HERE and HERE.

That Hornik wants to restore one of the city's long lost theaters is commendable. And that he's a proven business owner is an asset.

Or is it?

While he can rightfully claim that he operates six bars, 2 in Old City and 4 in Rittenhouse Square, exactly what types of bars are they? When one audience member said he'd moved to Fishtown to get away from Old City, where he'd lived before, Hornik was quick to say that Old City was nothing like it used to be, that it's now obnoxious and loud. Two things here: 1. Dude, didn't you help to make it that way? 2. Nothing like presenting a new idea to a new neighborhood by trashing a neighborhood you've done (and are still doing) business in.

Personally speaking, I'm about as mellow as bar goers get, and I practically got into a fight at Drinker's in Rittenhouse because some jerkoff frat boy was looking for one. I love bars, but that place sucks, even more so considering Devil's Alley, one of my favorite places in Center City, is right next door.

So, what exactly is Hornik looking to do with the Jumbo? Two parts: 1. a 100 person 'restaurant' and 2. a 500-700 person performance space for national touring acts. Think of it as: what Johnny Brenda's is to the Khyber, the Jumbo could be to the TLA. There would be dedicated parking lots in the rear of the theater and across Front Street totally about 80 spaces.

Mind you, this place is directly under -- at the bottom of the stairs of -- the el, the Route 15 trolley has an island outside the front doors, and two other bus lines stop right outside its doors. Like every community meeting, the very first question asked during the Q&A was about parking. Another woman declared that she can't keep her windows open because people walk by laughing loudly because they are walking back to their cars, and that Hornik better be prepared to offer 400 parking spaces. She actually said 400 parking spaces! I dunno, maybe they're your neighbors, walking home from the bar?

* * *

I see no reason a 500-700 person venue -- done right -- couldn't work at Front & Girard, especially when a movie house twice that size operated in the same facility 90 years ago. Sandy Salzman, NKCDC's executive director stops just short of agreeing. "Maybe," she says, looking across the room of 150 or so, "but there are definitely concerns . . . the former capacity had (the benefit of) a balcony."

When an audience member pressed Hornik about who he's been talking to to book and operate the shows, he mentioned Live Nation and Bowery Presents by name. Which is to say: larger national acts. It underscores the independence of Johnny Brenda's Brandy Hartley, whose booking of national acts gets herself and JB's press in the likes of MSNBC. (Disclosure: She also books Philly Skyline's events at JB's.)

William Reed, one of JB's two owners, thinks the Jumbo could maybe work, "but where are you going to put all the smokers?" Indeed, if you have a full capacity of 700 concert goers and 100 'restaurant' patrons, that's going to be a lot of smokers out on the well traveled sidewalks on Front & Girard.

About that 'restaurant' bit. I use quotes because it's how Hornik presented the idea. On his concept sheet, "Restaurant" is in bold, and it's how he described it at the meeting, before guaranteeing that every show would end by 12:30, so that patrons could catch the last el and the exodus of up to 700 would be just past midnight, not after 2. But it took an audience member to ask about the 'restaurant' in the front -- that it would be open until 2. Hornik said "yes." So it's a bar that serves food, not a restaurant that serves booze. Again, I love bars, but call a bar a bar, not a restaurant with gourmet pizza.

Hornik says that "the Jumbo's time has come again." His timeline, pending liquor license approval, sees construction wrapping up in time for an April 2009 opening. His track record may prove that he can do it, but his track record may also prevent the neighborhoods -- four of them -- from supporting it.

I think April may be a little on the early side for the rebirth of the Jumbo.

–B Love