It isn’t just the screens

Good­bye to Riverview, Philadel­phi­a’s movie the­ater for everyone

5 minute read
It wasn’t glamorous, but there was something special about Riverview. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)
It wasn’t glamorous, but there was something special about Riverview. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

In the cascade of closures since last spring in the wake of the pandemic, another Philadelphia theater has shut down. The Riverview, officially known as the Regal United Artists on Riverview Plaza, on South Philly’s Columbus Boulevard, will close permanently, Philly Voice reported last week.

Last year, the Inquirer reported that the theater and the plaza surrounding it were about to get a years-long makeover, but that's now off, as landlord Cedar Realty opted not to renew its lease. A manager told Philly Voice about vague plans to demolish the site and build homes there.

Alas, the escalators

The Riverview, which opened in the early 1990s, was unique for several reasons.

It was huge, occupying two levels and offering 17 screens, the most of any theater within the city limits. The aesthetics leaned toward dingy, and the popcorn lines were nearly always way too long. But unlike the Ritz at the Bourse, the other Philadelphia theater that closed this year, at least its escalators worked, at least most of the time.

It had its limitations, but Philly will always remember it fondly. Call it the Veterans Stadium of movie theaters.

Eclectic and accessible

The Riverview lived in a bizarrely designed, somewhat ugly development called Riverview Plaza, in which multiple storefronts have been empty for the better part of the past 15 years. The only places in the plaza that remained were the movie theater and Warmdaddy's, the soul food restaurant and music venue, which recently also announced its closure at that location (it has plans to reopen in Fairmount in 2021).

There was something else truly special about the Riverview: it attracted an eclectic mix of people from all over the area. The Riverview was easy to reach by bus and by car, it was right near an I-95 exit, and wasn't especially far from either the Walt Whitman or Benjamin Franklin Bridges. Also, the theater had a large, free parking lot a block away, something I never expect to see again for a city theater.

Guns at the movies

After 2000, the Riverview acquired a reputation as a place that wasn't so safe, likely in response to an incident that made international headlines in 2008 in which a South Philly man, perturbed by a father and son talking during a Christmas night showing of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, pulled a gun and shot the father (the victim survived). There was another incident in January 2018, in which two men had an argument after leaving the theater and shot at one another.

I know quite a few people who refuse to go to the Riverview, but I can say that I never felt unsafe at or near the theater at any point, nor did I ever witness anything violent or untoward there. Sure, there were plenty of arguments between the guy talking and the other guy telling him to shut up, but nothing that escalated to gunfire (The Philadelphia subreddit, upon hearing the news, did offer some amusing Riverview stories from over the years.)

Horror and laughs

But the Riverview wasn't all arguments and long lines.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Riverview's exterior was once featured in an episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, back when they used to do local location shoots, and the fictional location of Paddy's Pub, at 3rd and Dickinson, is just a few blocks away.

There was no better venue in town to see a good horror movie, preferably late at night, with a packed house. One of my favorite visits to the Riverview was for an early showing of Jordan Peele's Get Out the week before its release back in early 2017. There are few things like realizing, along with a great crowd, that a new movie is something special.

The theater was a frequent venue for local press screenings, especially the last few years, for any movie associated with Disney, including Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar. It was at Riverview where, due to a once-in-a-lifetime scheduling snafu, I had to duck out of the press screening of Avengers: Endgame for 15 minutes, in order to do a phone interview with Rob Lowe, while the editor who gave me both assignments sat directly behind me.

It was also where my two sons, last December, did my job for the night and asked questions of the codirectors of the animated movie Spies in Disguise.

The Riverview is where I saw the first Borat movie, and laughed possibly the loudest I ever have in a movie theater (like everyone else, I saw the second one on my couch). It's where, in 2007, my newspaper coworkers and I caught a late-night showing of the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie. And the last movie I saw there was Pixar's Onward, back in mid-February, which ended up being one of my favorite films of the year.

More than the screens

What does the Riverview's closing mean for Philadelphia's film scene? Probably nothing good. As I've been writing in this space for years, the city doesn’t have enough movie screens as it is, and even in the best-case coronavirus scenario (widespread vaccination allowing some type of normalcy by mid-2021), The Riverview’s 17 screens will be a big loss.

But losing Riverview isn’t just about the screens. It's the end of the multiplex that was easiest to get to for a large cross-section of the city, with a community atmosphere unlike any other. I have no idea what moviegoing will be like post-pandemic, but without the Riverview, it won't be nearly as enjoyable.

Image description: A photo of the now-empty Riverview Theater, with its curved three-tiered blue-and-white façade. The ghost of the removed giant letters reading “United Artists” is visible on the old white surface.

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