Uptown Theater revival

The Uptown Theater is about to get a new life.

The deteriorating theater on North Broad Street near Temple University has been slowly crumbling for 20 years. During most of those years, Linda Richardson has been slowly raising money to prop the theater back up.

As director of the Uptown Entertainment and Development Corporation, Richardson says work will begin in a few weeks on the theater’s six-floor office tower to get ready for tenants. The theater’s auditorium will continue to languish under decades of plaster dust while the UEDC works to raise the estimated $5 million repair costs.

In the 1960s and ’70s, the Uptown Theater was a major stop on the “chitlin’ circuit,” where soul and rhythm and blues acts such as James Brown and the Temptations performed for mostly African-American audiences. At least two live albums were recorded at the Uptown (The Magnificent Men’s “Live” and a soul revue called “Saturday Night at the Uptown”).

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“People just danced in the aisles,” said Richardson, leading a tour through the tattered auditorium. “Right here.”

She pointed with a flashlight because the building has no electricity. Entering the theater is like spelunking in a cave.

Richardson bought the building 15 years ago to rebuild it into a magnet landmark for the North Philadelphia neighborhood that is mostly black and often overlooked.

“Everybody has a history,” Richardson said to a class of Temple University students touring the theater. “We’re in the same league–in terms of historic preservation–as what happened when Independence Hall was deteriorating. There were a handful of people who decided that was important to them and their history. It’s brought a lot of tourism into Philadelphia. We believe the same thing can happen along the Avenue of the Arts.”

Uptown as a history text

The Uptown is the subject of a class taught by Temple history professor Bryant Simon. The theater allows him to touch on a wide range of topics, including music history, architecture, the civil rights movement, and urban development. He said Richardson has a unique vision for the Uptown redevelopment, comparing it to other cultural capital projects such as the Tweeter Center in Camden and the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia.

“A lot of development is based on attracting suburban day-trippers back to the city. That was (Mayor, then Gov. Ed) Rendell’s vision,” said Simon. “She’ trying to build something organically located in a place, not rely on other people, and then systematically give back.”

The UEDC’s plan is to rent offices spaces to arts-related businesses and organizations that will, in turn, offer education and job opportunities to the immediate neighborhood. As construction is about to begin, Richardson is still looking for tenants.

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