What is That?! A Look Inside Girard Theater (625 W Girard Ave.)
Just on the outskirts of Northern Liberties, between 6th and 7th on Girard, is the Fine Fare grocery store. Exciting right? Of course not, well that is until you go inside. And by inside I don’t mean to the iced tea reach-in coolers and Ramen Noodle aisles, I mean deep inside — like behind the walls. Back there you’ll find an 1890s era theatre, known as then as the Girard Avenue Theatre (Eventually just the Girard Theatre by World War II).
But, dude, first grab one of those Artic Splash Iced Teas because it’s like a thousand degrees back there. Oh, and wait, you can’t actually go back because it’s private property and all so you’ll get arrested. We got like special permission or whatever, so, yeah, anyway.
The first hint that something is different about this store is a strange, curved, intricately decorated wood thing that protrudes into the space from the ceiling. Shoppers have asked about it for years. It probably has one of those “theatre” names that a Scripp’s Spelling Bee contestant could knock out with with two or three questions about language-of-origin and a definition. But I’m not a home-schooled 13-year old from Virginia, I’m from Philly, so I call it a theatre balcony chumpy-jawn. Also, spelling is not my thing. You should have seen how badly I butchered “intricately” earlier in the paragraph. I almost broke Spellcheck.
Current owner, Siyam Ameed, picked up the property from his father in 2009. His father has owned the store since about 1980. It has been a grocery store since the early 1960s. So as a boy Ameed was an amateur urban spelunker. He was perfect to lead our crew through the dark and dusty halls, up rickety ladders, down dusty steps, and across creaky catwalks.
After climbing the abandoned stairway to the upper level we stood a couple stories up overlooking the main stage. No railings, no light, no room for error. Standing on a 125-year old solid-wood balcony, one member of our crew remarked at how a doorway to another area reminded him of the “Death Star’s garbage disposal” from Star Wars. “There’s like a frickin’ monster in there.”
One could surely believe another presence was around. This space totally had a ghost-hunting vibe to it. As we were heading up steps to the theatre control area I saw a human-like, female form in front of me. Most likely just a dust swirl, but I shot about a dozen photos with my iPhone, flash on and flash off. Only one pic remained after our visit though. Oooooh, spooky! My Siri crapped her pants and is not even talking to me anymore.
When we finally finagled our way into the control room I totally expected to find my photographer pulling a mask off somebody saying, “And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling Spirit News staffers!” Zoinks! Unfortunately Fine Fare doesn’t sell Scooby Snacks.
Just looking out over the seats though was like looking at a ghost. It doesn’t take long to imagine people sitting in the seats and other performing for them.
I found an article from 1895 in Household News magazine written by Henry Hanby Hay. With a name like that you just know he’s a theatre expert, who would never utter the word “jawn.” He wrote: “I found that there was a theatre in Philadelphia with a trained stock company; and that this theatre could, and did, give me Shakespeare (yes, three weeks of Shakespeare at a time), Shakespeare well acted and well staged; that this theatre was large, handsome and convenient; that it has a fine crush-room, many free conveniences; in short, that it was a place of high ideals and low prices.”
The performing arts beat writers of the New York Times were quite familiar with the Girard, referring to it as one of “the principal theatres in Philadelphia,” among other notables like The Walnut Street Theatre and the Chestnut Street Theatre.
While many of the performers and shows were well-knows during the run of the theatre, even some of the staff were notable. George Zottman was a bouncer and known as “The Strongest Man in the United States during 1890s.” He allegedly could lift the “entire stock company in an exhibition of strength,” according to the New York Times, which actually published his obit.
It seems that at that time the theatre biz was in a slump due to high ticket prices. The NYTimes noted that at “George Holland’s now well-established enterprise, at the Girard Avenue Theatre … good plays are offered at low prices.” The writer then held it up as a model for the business moving forward, even in New York City. But while Off-Broadway took off in New York in the 1950s, the Girard started to falter.
As neglected as the setting is the character is still there. A go-getting developer could turn the space into an awesome venue for local shows.
That’s one of the reasons Ameed is listing the place for sale. Ray Caceres, a realtor whose office is across the street is actively trying to sell it.
“I got people from New York looking at it now,” Caceres said. “One idea is to keep it as a theatre.”
Ameed would be happy if that happened but he’s not putting any conditions on the sale.
“Everything is included, the property, the business, all of it,” Ameed said, citing living a long drive from his North New Jersey home every day as his primary reason for moving on.
Ameed also had more to show us. There were bathrooms for spectators, dressing rooms for performers, and ancient mechanical equipment to explore. Some of which required climbing on trash piles left by a guy who had rented out a portion of the theatre a few years ago.
“Is it safe?” one of our crew asked Ameed.
“It’s safe-ish,” he joked.
“The guy was paying his rent so we weren’t worried,” Ameed said, but then the man’s business began to fail. The man left a large amount of debris. “We were just like, ‘what the …’”
In a top floor room, which could have been office space for management or perhaps somewhere for performers to just chill, we could do anything but as it was at least 120 degrees. But the fine wood designs we found in the doorway were worth the sweat.
That the theatre kept much of it’s character is more remarkable when you learn that it was “gutted” by a major fire in 1903. A traveling group was performing “The Minister’s Daughter.” All of their costumes were destroyed. Perhaps tragedy was avoided by a prepared staff as an adjacent horse stable in 1902, which killed several horses, gave management insight in how to keep large crowns calm and orderly.
Random show advertisements were strewn about in rooms or in some cases still hanging on walls. One read, “Miss Selma Herman in The Angel of the Trail,” which was from the very early 1900s. Another poster, likely from the end of the theatre’s run, was touting a film version of one of the Floyd Patterson vs Ingemar Johansson bouts as “better than ringside.” Those two boxers fought three times from 1959 to 1961 with the Heavyweight Championship belt changing hands twice.
In a lower level room we found several rooms with writing on them. One intriguing note was signed “Walt Chambers, May 1897.”
Even Ameed was surprised when we closed a door and saw a sign from a stage employee’s union advertising a “Show and Ball” to benefit their relief fund to be held on April 23, 1928 at the Academy of Music.
“Wow, in all these years, I’ve never seen that before,” he said.
The space is so cavernous and dark that every walk on a catwalk or climb up a ladder could reveal something new for years. It would just depend on where you focused your attention.
Hopefully the next owner will focus their attention on the treasures still hidden and the big one right in their face.