It took more than 100 firefighters to douse a fire that roared early Saturday morning through a building at Kensington and Somerset that for over 50 years was home to Phil’s Appliances.
Started in 1967 by Philip Imbrenda — nephew of John Imbrenda, namesake of popular Fishtown tavern Johnny Brenda’s — the fire-ravaged appliance repair shop at 2802 Kensington Ave. had a unique claim to fame:
It played a pivotal role in the 1995 Terry Gilliam blockbuster “12 Monkeys.”
In the movie, which was filmed in Philadelphia, the corner space served as headquarters of the animal rights group led by Brad Pitt’s character, the one Bruce Willis’s character was sure had unleashed the deadly virus on the world.
“Demi Moore was in there with Bruce Willis,” recalled Vincent Imbrenda Jr., brother to Philip and the person who does most repairs these days.
“My son was in the movie, [along with] a couple guys who worked at the shop,” Imbrenda said. “They gave them $65 for the day.”
He recalled the film production taking over a nearby church to use as a greenroom, and chuckled at the apparent naivete of the actors on set. “She says, ‘I left my new fox stole in there. If anyone sees it, would they please return it?’”
Even then, the area was not the kind of place you’d ever get something like that back, Imbrenda said. Now, it’s near the center of the neighborhood’s opioid crisis, which he thinks led to the fire.
Directly across the street is Cantina La Martina, a Mexican restaurant whose owners purposely opened in the troubled area to try to help with revitalization, but who have been suffering hardships as vendors refuse to provide service because of the many people living and using drugs on nearby sidewalks.
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Imbrenda feels bad for the restaurateurs, husband and wife Dionicio Jiménez and Mariangeli Alicea Saez. “They won’t even deliver his stuff down there.”
The couple’s brightly colored storefront is a world away from its former incarnation as Bentley’s Bar, he said — though that former dive also had a movie claim to fame: it was in “Rocky Balboa,” the boxing series’ sixth installment, which came out in 2006.
“I seen him, [Sylvester Stallone],” Imbrenda said. “I was going down to the store. He was on the corner with his brother and a bodyguard. I told him they should make a Rocky musical. I don’t think he liked that. He didn’t say nothing.”
Imbrenda, 77, is the one who answers the phone now if you call Phil’s Appliances. His younger brother, whose name is on the sign, now runs a small film production company, he said.
A lot of his repair work is off-site, for property managers, and Imbrenda does not expect the storefront to reopen. His younger sister officially owns the building, and is trying to sell it.
Or that’s what he’s heard. The siblings are not on good terms.
He recounted a recent battle over keeping the storefront open. Twice his sister boarded it up, Imbrenda said, and twice he took the planks down. The third time she boarded it up, about a month ago, “they got in there,” he said, referring to people in addiction seeking shelter from the elements.
“I was trying to keep things running, then I figured the hell with it,” Imbrenda said. “The police won’t even go in there.”
Mayor-elect Cherelle Parker has said she intends to change policing tactics in Kensington, where an approach that favors harm reduction over arrests means PPD patrols often don’t interfere with people openly using drugs or squatting in vacant buildings.
That’s what Imbrenda believes led to Saturday’s fire — people living in the store trying to cook or keep warm inside. A neighborhood resident showed him video of people running out, he said, and “you could see the flames in the background.”
The cause of the blaze, which began just before 4 a.m. and was under control by 5:15 a.m., is officially under investigation by the Philadelphia Fire Marshal’s Office, per PFD spokesperson Rachel Cunningham.
Imbrenda seems resigned to losing the storefront, though he’s not happy about it: “There’s a lot of history in that place. It’s a shame.”