Cinema and Community: Steve Gunn talks playing solo to benefit the Lansdowne Theater - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
Steve Gunn | photo by Constance Mensh | courtesy of Matador Records

When psych rock guitarist and songwriter Steve Gunn was growing up in Delaware County, the Lansdowne Theater was something of an anchor. It’s where he went to the movies as a child. Down the street is the telephone company where his mother worked for 40 years. Across the way is Todero’s Music, where he took guitar lessons.

“The theater closed in ’87, and it’s right on Lansdowne Ave, which is really the main thoroughfare of the town,” remembers Gun. “So when the 90s came around, things seemed a bit more muted, a lot of the older businesses started leaving. And things kind of changed.”

Lansdowne Theater | photo via

At the time it was shuttered, the Lansdowne Theater had been operating for 60 years — a classic, single-screen movie house with brightly colored seats and ceilings and ornate architectural flourishes. The sort that thrived all across the country in the earlier part of the 20th century. The sort that then began universally disappearing and falling into disrepair with the advent of the multiplex age.

The catalyst in this particular theater’s demise was actually an electrical fire in a neighboring businesses that spread up the block — it happened during a screening of Beverly Hills Cop II, and the 100 patrons had to be evacuated — but repairing and reopening the space at that time was not an option. That same year, it received a designation on the national register of historic places, but sat dormant until about 2007, when a local nonprofit began raising money for the restoration. When Gunn caught wind of the project, he says he was super excited.

One of his best friends from childhood, visual artist Anthony Campuzano, helped connect him with the group campaigning for the restoration — Campuzano’s father is the mayor of Lansdowne — and through them, he coordinated a photo shoot for his most recent LP Eyes on the Lines inside the old theater. He also organized a benefit gig, and this Saturday night, Gunn will perform a solo set in the lobby, with proceeds benefiting the Historic Lansdowne Theater Corporation.

Reflecting on the borough where he grew up, Gunn speaks of it and Philadelphia in the same breath. Lansdowne an incredibly close neighbor of the city; a sort of hidden jewel just a little bit further down Baltimore Avenue.

“If you’re sitting on the regional rail train and you’re at University City, you’re gonna be at Lansdowne in another seven minutes,” he says. “It’s crazy close.”

In contrast to the muted Lansdowne of the 90s, Gunn describes the borough as a much more vibrant place when the theater was open. He remembers a music store called C.R. CD’s – his friend Jack worked there, and they would special order the more obscure releases the shop didn’t keep in stock. There was a candy shop across the SEPTA bridge called Strawberry Room. And there were ample places for skateboarding.

“I spent a lot of hours in the parking lot of the bank across the street from the theater, sitting on the parking blocks and skateboarding and drinking iced tea,” laughs Gunn. “Behind the theater there’s a parking lot called the bus yard where there’s this concrete sort of wall built almost like a skate ramp. It was where they park school busses and other vehicles for the school, but they sort of let us [use it]…it was a destination for skateboards at the time.”

All that stuff was around the theater. And the theater is easily the biggest landmark on the street. “It sticks out,” says Gunn. “It’s sort of the nucleus of the whole area.”

Gunn has been based in Brooklyn for the better part of the last decade — when we talk on the phone, he’s sitting on an outdoor bench with the sound of traffic cutting through — but he often returns home to visit his family, and says he the recent resurgence in Lansdowne is evident.

“There’s a new interest in the arts,” he says. “There are people trying to reestablish the downtown area and get people excited about being in a community again. There’s also a different sort of demographic there now which, to me, is pretty amazing. There seem to be more African families and people who are coming in from the city discovering that Lansdowne is a great place to live, and they’re opening shops as well. So it’s this cool kind of cultural mix. I feel like there’s a kind of new life happening there. For me, it’s pretty exciting.”

Gunn is also excited at the chance to play acoustic and solo — something that’s still an important part of his repertoire as a performer, but that he doesn’t get to do as often as he once did. Since the release of Eyes on the Lines and 2014’s Way Out Weather, he’s been pretty continually on the road with his band. They space his songs out to expansive and immersive proportions, as you can hear on their recent World Cafe performance, but he tries to keep active playing alone as well.

“It puts me in different venues, it puts me in different spaces and allows me to do different things…things that I really enjoy about being a songwriter,” Gunn says. He says it allows him to be more conversational, or play songs that are purely instrumental. “Depending on the space and the venue and the context of the show, there’s a certain kind of intimacy presenting songs just me. Logistically, it’s completely night and day in effort and easiness; I can show up with an acoustic and do my thing, and I’m willing to do that anywhere. It’s a different musical interaction for me, where I can work within my own flow.”

Turning back to the theater, we talk about how the multiplex boom that made the 90s an unfriendly environment for spaces like the Lansdowne Theater has cooled. Gunn observes that people have an affinity for different kinds of cinema in low key settings, especially in more quaint towns versus the suburban sprawl.

“I certainly don’t like to go to multiplexes,” Gunn says. “But at the same time, this theater going to be more than just that. They have a liquor license, they’ll have community events and concerts. It’s going to be a very legitimate venue. When it’s done, people are going to be very surprised when they see it. When you walk in there, it’s a very majestic place, and the fact that they’re doing it right…”

He pauses.

“It’s such a treasure. The fact that it hasn’t been torn down and gutted is a miracle.”

Steve Gunn performs a benefit for the Lansdowne Theater tomorrow night, September 10th; more information on the event can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar. To donate to the Historic Lansdowne Theater Corporation, go here.

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