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Sundance Rises in the West
IT WAS A NICE SHOT OF HOLLYWOOD MAGIC for a neighborhood
that has long needed a little magic of any sort. There was film legend
Robert Redford, tanned and bespectacled in a jet-black blazer, sitting
beside Dr. Judith Rodin, CW'66, president of the University, and
talking thoughtfully about why he had decided to build a Sundance Cinema
Center -- a six-to-eight-screen, 40,000-51,000-square-foot theater complex
dedicated to independent films -- at 40th and Walnut Streets.
That announcement was, in itself, heady news for Penn,
which has been working feverishly to juice up its off-campus cultural
and retail life as part of a larger effort to revitalize its immediate
urban environment. And what made it even headier is that the mission of
Sundance, in Redford's words, "dovetails beautifully with the mission
of the University."
The site of the complex will be an irregularly-shaped
plot of land that runs mostly behind the Hamilton Village retail strip
on the west side of 40th Street between Locust and Walnut. The two-story
complex, to be designed by architect Carlos Zapata, will face Walnut Street
and will include sites now occupied by a Burger King, a Bucks County Coffee,
and University City Nautilus. Construction is scheduled to begin in January
and be finished within a year.
Redford spoke with quiet passion about trying to recreate
some of the sense of community and magic that movie theaters once gave
him as a boy growing up in a decidedly un-glitzy section of Los Angeles,
and said that he wants to use film as a "magnet" to bring members
of the University community and the neighboring urban community together.
And since a major function of Sundance is "nurturing the voice of
the new artist," Redford's goals mesh nicely with those of Penn,
which include, in Rodin's words, "encouraging freedom of expression
and thought." Noting that most art houses today "are designed
for consumption, not for a cultural experience," Redford said that
Sundance would avoid the "cookie-cutter, screen, screen, screen"
model and would provide instead "common ground where art and commerce
meet." In addition to the screens, the drawing-board plans include
such options as an art gallery, café, bar, video library, jazz club, and
newsstand -- even a child-care center for theater patrons.
While there are a number of college communities around
the country that would be ideal locations for Sundance, Redford said that
Philadelphia "is the only site we have that will connect the university
with the urban experience." Philadelphia is the second site in the
nation to announce a Sundance Cinema; the first was Portland, Ore., while
Chicago and Boston are also in "advanced negotiations" with
In an interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian, Redford
said that when he visited the area earlier in the year, he was struck
by the "clear physical evidence of where the rubber meets the road
in terms of a depressed area and the university experience." And,
he added, "I thought this was a wonderful opportunity to relieve
this depressed area and change it.
"This will not be an elitist situation," he
added. "Students, minorities, and others would all come to the space."
Redford also told the DP that he was aware of
Penn's and Rodin's urban initiatives already, and thought they were the
"answer to the future because of the collapse of leadership at the
top, both morally and politically." And when his site-selection team
informed him that "there was a U. of Penn site showing up as a 'maybe,'"
he recalled saying, "Wow, that's great -- let's find out if the University
would be interested in working with us." He then called Rodin this
past January while she was in China, and accepted her invitation to come
to Philadelphia to discuss the project.
"We help in being a bridge in [Rodin's] effort,"
he added. "But it also satisfied our needs, too. If there was no
Judith Rodin, we wouldn't be trying to do this. It's just [that] a lot
of things come together around this particular site."
Redford founded the Utah-based Sundance Institute in
1979 as a laboratory for budding filmmakers; since then, it has expanded
dramatically and includes an annual film festival. He acknowledged that
the independent films to be shown at Sundance Cinemas are likely to overlap
with those shown on cable television's Sundance Channel. Sundance is a
joint venture between Redford and GC Companies, Inc., the parent company
of General Cinema Theatres, Inc., which will share with Penn the cost
of developing the property.
Bill Doeren, president and CEO of General Cinema, said
that the center "will provide amenities consistent with the community-based
needs in the area, including stadium seating, digital sound, a restaurant,
and an outdoor garden café," as well as "other space where a
range of special events and community gatherings can take place."
Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell, C'65 -- who
recalled his own freshman days at Penn some 37 years ago when there were
"no movie theaters and just a few restaurants" -- said that
he envied his son Jesse, now a Penn freshman, who would have a much broader
range of cultural opportunities. While the mammoth Sansom Common project
at 36th and Walnut Streets has received most of the attention, there have
already been some striking improvements to the 40th Street retail corridor,
especially between Locust and Walnut. In addition to the Sundance Cinema,
a fresh-food specialty supermarket -- to be run by Drexeline, a local
supermarket operator -- and a parking garage are being planned for the
northwest corner of 40th and Walnut.
The educational possibilities of the cinema center were
not lost on Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the professor of communication
who serves as dean of the Annenberg School for Communication.
"I'm very excited," she said after the press
conference. "And I don't excite easily. This is something that really
could be very exciting for the undergraduate population. They're thinking
in the right way. If you start out from the beginning and say, 'First
we have a community, and we have a university; how do you create this
so it integrates both of them?' -- that's a nice vision. Now, if the implementation
follows out from that, this is going to be an important moment for Penn."
While some of the other recent construction projects
haven't had a "direct tie back into the educational mission"
of the University, she noted that in this case, "you begin to see
how the programming ties in" to the Agenda for Excellence.
After all, she said, the Annenberg School "is looking for ways to
involve the undergraduates, who are really Arts and Sciences undergraduates,
in a whole complex of things around media and media industries. So if
you bring this in, at the minimum, you're involving them in the understanding
of how media industries work." In addition, she said, the cinema
center could "dramatically" raise the school's visibility, "in
ways that we wouldn't have done on our own."
In an editorial titled "The University's newest
tenant," the DP called the project a "major coup for
the University," adding that the combination of the movie complex
and the food market "are exactly what the area needs to give it a
significant boost. And if everything comes off as planned, 40th Street
will be phenomonal."
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Gazette Last modified 10/28/98