Why the marquee lights are back on at North Philly’s shuttered Uptown Theater
North Philadelphia’s Uptown Theater celebrated 90 years since it first opened its doors. Now, community organizers hope to fully reopen the theater by 2020.Listen 1:53
Beryl Belcher remembers spending an entire weekend at her cousin’s house just to catch shows at the Uptown Theater in the 1960s.
Her cousin lived right behind the Art Deco style theater in North Philadelphia, which drew big-name performers like Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and The Jackson 5 over the years.
Belcher and her cousin would pay $5 and get to see seven acts in one night.
“Sometimes we had the money to go because we were teenagers, and sometimes we didn’t,” said Belcher who also grew up in North Philly. “But we knew the old guy that ran the lights, so on a Saturday afternoon, he would just let us in. ‘Come on, you two, get in.’ But if we had the money, we’d pay.”
She remembers seeing one of her favorite acts, the Isley Brothers, and when the R&B group closed out the set with its chart-topping hit, “Shout,” Belcher says the audience stood up, as the song commanded, and danced. She said it felt like going to church.
“Nobody told us to sit down,” Belcher said. “Everybody would be standing up singing, ‘You make me wanna shout,’ and we’re just shouting and just having a good time.”
Belcher returned to that same theater Saturday night to watch the large marquee light up North Broad Street in celebration of the building’s 90th anniversary — and of new plans for its future.
As the lights flipped on, the roughly 30 people in attendance — many of whom went to shows at the Uptown 40 to 50 years ago — witnessed a reignition of their pasts, which for some stirred feelings of nostalgia and awe.
“It was special,” said Jean Hackney, of North Philadelphia. “I’m glad there is something that is still related to our heritage right here in Philadelphia.”
The Uptown Theater opened its doors 90 years ago on Feb. 16, 1929, as a movie theater. It became a concert venue in the 1950s and was part of the “chitlin’ circuit,” a collection of performance spaces known for showcasing black performers amid racial segregation.
The theater is designated as a historical city landmark but fell into disrepair after it shuttered in 1978.
But the Uptown Entertainment and Development Corporation (UEDC) has been trying to revive the local mecca of rhythm-and-blues and soul music since 1995. With the celebration of the theater’s 90th anniversary, the organization is preparing for construction projects in hopes of fully reopening the venue by next year.
New vision for historic theater
UEDC’s president, Linda Richardson, said the project is about more than simply preserving Philadelphia’s last intact Art Deco theater because of its place in American musical history. The organization believes it could also help revive the local economy in North Philadelphia, where many residents live in poverty.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes for the good, but more importantly, what we want the Uptown Theater to be is an anchor so that neighborhood residents that stayed in the neighborhood and pay their taxes, now [can] take advantage of the benefits of some of the good things that are going on,” Richardson said.
UEDC, which has owned the property since 2002, has ambitious plans for the large building. The old auditorium will once again become a concert venue, with the upper floors of the theater housing a new rhythm and blues museum, and WJYN, a local community radio station.
The organization also hopes to create workspace for artists, as well as an “art and education tower” for a program to teach media production skills to youth.
“The Uptown Theater, in its heyday, had young people getting involved in music that is now part of the mainstream, and it launched the careers of many people, both local and international,” Richardson said.
In the 1960s and early ’70s, Michael Jackson and his brothers performed at the Uptown Theater as The Jackson 5 before the late King of Pop’s career took off.
“We appreciate the past and celebrate the past, but we also want to make sure that young people have the opportunity to thrive and engage in the 21st-century economy and to be able to be productive citizens in our society,” she added.
UEDC is more than halfway done restoring the building’s infrastructure, Richardson said. The next phase will be to renovate the interior of the theater and other floors in the building.
The group has raised $4 million of the $10 million needed to renovate the theater, Richardson said. Last February, UEDC received a $500,000 grant from the state.
State Sen. Sharif Street, who represents North Philadelphia and helped secure the state funding, said seeing the marquee relit, validated the hard work done over the last 20 years.
“So many iconic things happened here,” Street said. “This theater has the same level of significance for North Philadelphia that the Apollo Theater did for Harlem in New York City.
“Unlike some of the great projects that have happened on North Broad, this one has been a 100 percent driven by community-based organizations and people in the community,” he added. “So I think it’s a great addition to all of the other positive things happening on North Broad.”
The marquee will stay lit throughout the rest of the construction.
“It’s really exciting,” Richardson said. “It’s the culmination of the work that we’ve done to stabilize and preserve and to be able to show the community that better things are on the horizon.”
WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.