Before COVID, the Uptown Theater Had a Real Shot at Revival. Will the Show Still Go On?
The onset of the pandemic and the death of the North Philadelphia theater’s champion threw into question what would come next for the iconic venue that had already been through its share of ups and downs.
If you find yourself in conversation with a North Philadelphian of a certain age, chances are you’ll hear a tale about a night at the Uptown Theater.
During its heyday from the 1950s until it closed its doors in 1978, the theater — located on Broad Street between Susquehanna and Dauphin — featured performers ranging from gospel legends to comedy titans to Motown royalty.
For a ticket price that modern-day concertgoers couldn’t even imagine — an evening with Diana Ross of the Supremes cost $2.50 in the ’60s — legendary WDAS radio personality and producer Georgie Woods put on shows featuring the likes of the Jackson Five, the Temptations, “Little” Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and the Four Tops.
But the Uptown hasn’t been in use for concerts since the 1980s, when acts such as New Edition and RUN DMC took the stage during a short-lived revival. After that, True Light Community Ministries used the building for services until 1991.
When longtime community organizer Linda Richardson, head of the Uptown Entertainment Development Corporation, bought the theater in 2001, she dreamed of restoring it to its former glory. But at the time, those days seemed long gone — and despite several other efforts, no one had been able to bring them back, says her daughter, Monifa Young, who currently sits on the UEDC board.
“It was in poor structural shape — damage due to floods and fires and the neglect of the previous owners,” recalls Young. Initial fund-raising had to go toward paying off tens of thousands of dollars in outstanding tax debt. The roof was collapsing on both sides, and every day, the theater fell further into disrepair.
“But it’s a part of Philadelphia history and a part of Black history,” says Young. “So we couldn’t let that happen.”
As a former co-director of the People’s Fund (the precursor to Philly’s Bread & Roses community fund, which raises money toward social change), Richardson understood the importance of the arts and community development. Her plan involved, yes, reopening the theater. But beyond that, she dreamed of converting the building’s upper floors into a community hub and business incubator that might spur further development on a long-neglected stretch of Broad. Over the years, she raised more than $3 million to make immediate repairs and start further renovations. Under her leadership, the building once again began to play a role in the community arts scene.
Then, in November of 2020, Richardson died suddenly, at age 73. Her passing threw into question what would come next for an iconic venue that had already been through its share of ups and downs — and, by extension, the North Philadelphia neighborhood that surrounds it.
The Uptown got its start in 1929 as a movie palace for the Warner Brothers/Stanley Theaters chain, according to the book After the Final Curtain: The Fall of the American Movie Theater. Designed by the Philadelphia firm of Magaziner, Eberhard and Harris, the five-story building included a theater with high ceilings, stained-glass windows, terra-cotta walls and velvet seats. It was a classy, elegant place to bring a date to the movies and maybe go out for a bite afterward.
In the 1950s, the theater was one of the go-to sites on the Chitlin’ Circuit, a group of venues that gave African American performers the chance to entertain audiences at a time when segregation kept the likes of comedians Redd Foxx and Flip Wilson out of venues considered more mainstream.
In the ’60s, the Uptown was at the height of its relevance, hosting night after night of legendary acts. Many of those shows were performances with a purpose. Because Georgie Woods was a friend of civil rights leader and Philadelphia NAACP president Cecil B. Moore, the Uptown was the setting for “Freedom Shows” that featured high-profile performers like Jackie Wilson and raised money to further civil rights causes.
The theater was active as a concert venue until closing in 1978. By then, Woods had stopped promoting shows there due to concerns about safety in North Philadelphia. Gang violence and the beginnings of the crack cocaine epidemic were taking root in the neighborhood. The disinvestment in North Philadelphia that followed kept promoters from taking the venue seriously as a performance space. By the time True Light Community Ministries started using the theater for services in the 1980s, the building had changed owners several times.
In 1980, community activist John Bowser bought the venue for $200,000 and gave his son Kyle the job of managing it and booking shows at the New Uptown Theater and Entertainment Center, or NU-TEC. To reopen the venue, John Bowser borrowed $1.3 million from Continental Bank, with $1.266 million guaranteed by the City of Philadelphia under former mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr. He also got loans from two other city banks and the federal Small Business Administration, none of which NU-TEC could pay back. The venue opened and closed within weeks.
Following Bowser’s death in 1983, a group called Uptown Associates that included Liberty Place developer Willard Rouse took ownership of the Uptown, pledging to do with the site what Bowser couldn’t. But that group, too, was unable to make the financials work.
And then came Linda Richardson. Richardson, who grew up in North Philadelphia, had studied at the Pennsylvania Dance Academy, was part of a dance troupe called the Black Butterfly, and had been a part of the Black Arts Movement. When revitalizing North Philadelphia became a priority for city officials in the 1990s, she was working as a community organizer and took part in a project that renovated five houses across the street from the theater. The venue, which at that point had long been vacant, had been vandalized. Residents wanted something done about it.
On the theater’s 90th anniversary, the lights of the marquee were relit, with plans to keep them shining through the end of construction. Excitement and momentum were building.
Richardson called John Street, then a City Councilperson, and spoke with him and his chief of staff at the time, Darrell Clarke.
According to the late Philadelphia Tribune reporter Kimberly C. Roberts in her book Joy Ride: The Stars and Stories of Philly’s Famous Uptown Theater, Street’s answer motivated Richardson: “He said, ‘If you don’t have keys, you can’t do anything. You have to own it.’”
So she got to work. First, Richardson got a grant from the Governor’s Commission on African American Affairs to do a study, to see if the community would support her plans for the venue. Once that was confirmed, she formed the UEDC, which purchased the Uptown in 2001.
Under her leadership, the UEDC immediately undertook the repairs necessary to stabilize the structure. After that, the group began to re-engage with the community. By 2017, Uptown Radio, a low-power station at WJYN 98.5, began broadcasting from the UEDC’s conference center, across the street from the theater, using an antenna on the theater itself, according to Yumy Odom, who runs the station in his role as UEDC’s programming director. The station provides North Philadelphia residents with news, music and other programming tailored specifically for their community.
On the theater’s 90th anniversary in 2019, the lights of the marquee were relit to commemorate the occasion, with plans to keep them shining through the end of construction. Excitement and momentum were building. Then the pandemic hit, and shortly thereafter, the project lost its visionary leader.
Up until her death in November 2020 from a heart attack, Richardson was still raising funds to move the Uptown project forward. And although she’s gone, her work continues.
Richardson had the foresight to prepare the Uptown for a future without her at the helm, Monifa Young says. A 12-person board remains in place, and the community engagement work Richardson valued continues under the guidance of Marcia Abdul-Malik, the office administrator.
“We had already been talking about a two-year transition plan,” says Young. “She was going to retire in two years and was already cultivating the next group of leaders to take over.”
The vision remains ambitious, and UEDC has done extensive research on the ways the theater’s reinvigoration and the company itself can best serve the community, which has said it wants nothing less than the return of the sort of bustling business corridor that defined the stretch of Broad in previous eras. “The community wants restaurants, recording studios — even a daycare center has been suggested,” Young says. “The development of the theater is just one of the many signature projects of the corporation.”
The UEDC has set a goal of creating 200 new jobs through the redevelopment of the Uptown building. It has also created a job bank for construction work and commercial-corridor cleaning opportunities, and it’s launched the Uptown Youth Got Talent program (Monifa Young runs it), which teaches young people audio/video production and performing arts and offers a paid summer internship program.
The prospects of a revamped Uptown Theater, and what it could mean for a section of the city in serious need of good jobs, are top of mind for many in North Philadelphia.
“North Broad deserves a lot,” says Shalimar Thomas, executive director of North Broad Renaissance, a nonprofit group charged with revitalizing the north side of Broad Street. “It deserves decent businesses, and we’re here to make sure it gets the kind of quality businesses that every other section of the city does.”
When North Broad Renaissance did an initial five-year strategic plan, “The Uptown Theater was a part of it,” Thomas says. “It’s part of the history of North Broad Street. It’s also a part of the community’s vision for North Broad Street, and it’s from the community that we take our cues.”
But there’s an underlying concern that any economic development of North Broad, even with the Uptown at the center, could have deleterious repercussions. This is a neighborhood, after all, that’s been fighting with Temple University over how a proposed on-campus football stadium might displace families and accelerate gentrification, making it unaffordable and inhospitable to long-term residents.
For an example of how this can all go wrong, one need only look a mile down the road to the Metropolitan, the former opera house at Broad and Poplar. The Met, which like the Uptown is on the National Register of Historic Places, was a vacant historic theater falling into disrepair in 1996, when the Holy Ghost Headquarters Revival Center bought it and sank $5 million into renovations to keep it from falling down. For years, only half of the structure was in use.
Then, in 2017, Holy Ghost Headquarters and builder Eric Blumenfeld began a partnership that led to a $56 million renovation. The deal gave concert promoter Live Nation the right to book shows for artists such as John Oliver, Mariah Carey, John Legend and Madonna at the venue built by Oscar Hammerstein in 1908.
But the relationship has been tense. In late 2019, Blumenfeld filed suit against Live Nation, claiming the concert promoter hasn’t honored its agreement to pay him $1.5 million in “fixed minimum rent” and an additional $2 for every ticket sold in exchange for use of the venue.
The concert promoter was also supposed to have the venue open by 7 a.m. on Sundays for church services and for public use as needed, which the suit says hasn’t happened. In the filing, Mark Hatcher, pastor of Holy Ghost Headquarters, accuses the promoter of not honoring the clause concerning the church and creating an “environment of bullying.” (Live Nation has called the suit an “attempt to extort additional rent.”)
Like the Met, the Uptown is considered a potential anchor for commercial growth on its part of North Broad, North Broad Renaissance’s Thomas says. But the community and the UEDC hope that growth will be deliberate — and will promote local businesses and community groups rather than pushing them out. Based on how things have gone at the Met and elsewhere in the neighborhood, there’s a wariness about the ultimate impact of the Met’s redevelopment, and that reticence attaches to the Uptown project.
The Uptown “is being intentional to make sure that it complements some of the other plans for the neighborhood,” says State Senator Sharif Street, whose district includes the Uptown. “It could serve as an anchor to help all of the other businesses and do it in a way that is still consistent with the values of the people who live in the community.”
The hope is that once the theater is developed, other locally owned small businesses will gravitate there and join the National Black Doll Museum and the shops that currently occupy space nearby.
“This is probably the only block of Broad with African American [business] ownership on it,” Yumy Odom says, and the community would like to see more, not less, as the theater develops.
Of course, without a big-business development partner like the one the Met had, the math around development is trickier. But there are other ways to partner.
In 1982, the Greater Philadelphia Community Development Corporation successfully applied to get the Uptown, which it owned at the time, added to the National Register of Historic Places.
While that may have spared the building from the wrecking ball, the designation added a new set of challenges — namely, restoring historic buildings isn’t cheap. It will take at least another $7 million, estimates say, to finish just basic renovations to the nearly 100-year-old theater and office building. A daycare center and recording studio would tack on a lot more.
The building’s status as a historical landmark does make it eligible for grants and tax breaks, according to Patrick Grossi, director of advocacy for the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, which has pledged to help. “We had a good relationship with Linda Richardson,” he says. “And we’re happy to support her family members or anyone else who is trying to see her dream through to fruition.”
And because a historical preservation designation is permanent, the UEDC can take all the time it needs to get the money, tax credits and other help required to continue restoring the building.
Plans for the Uptown’s return also happen to align with City Council President Darrell Clarke’s ambition to tackle entrenched poverty as part of this year’s budget cycle. Some 45 percent of the city’s extreme poverty can be found in North Philly, and the new budget includes $400 million in funding for job creation, training opportunities, and economic development. While Clarke says the Uptown is important to North Philadelphia — and the city has given the venue money toward its development in the past — there was no commitment to the theater in this year’s city budget.
In the meantime, the Uptown Entertainment Development Corporation soldiers on.
Tours of the theater have been put on hold while SEPTA conducts upgrades outside of the building. But Uptown Radio continues to broadcast, giving a voice to a community that isn’t always heard and providing training to local youth. Plans to move the station into the theater itself have been delayed due to COVID, but Odom hopes to be there by 2023. Fund-raising efforts are always ongoing.
Despite losing their founder, the new leaders of the UEDC say they have no plans to quit, to sell the iconic building, or to break down its walls. They’re committed to it.
“We’re not going to sell out for $10,000 or $20,000 when we know how much work has gone into this building,” Young says. “We’re not willing to sell out my mother’s vision and the community interest.”
The potential pitfalls are many, but as long as everyone remains on the same page and adheres to Richardson’s vision, the Uptown Theater — and, by extension, North Philadelphia — stands a chance.
Denise Clay-Murray is an independent journalist whose work has appeared in the Philadelphia Sunday Sun, the Keystone and Momentum and on BBC.com and the Australian Broadcasting Company.
Published as “Staging a Revival” in the September 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.