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Everybody, of a certain age, seems to have a story about the Uptown Theater.
Now empty and dilapidated, the Uptown Theater on North Broad in Philadelphia was once a celebrated performance venue for top-tier Black artists in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, a major stop on the so-called “Chitlin’ Circuit” of performance venues across the country that attracted people like James Brown, Ray Charles and Miles Davis. The theater also became the launching pad for white soul acts such as Hall and Oates and the Harrisburg band The Magnificent Men.
A new television documentary produced by WHYY, Inc. revisits the theater’s glory days as a major presenter of R&B, soul, gospel and jazz with fans, artists, DJs and historians.“The Uptown Theater: Movies, Music, and Memories,” is a half-hour program that also traces the history of the building itself, which was designed as a destination movie palace in a lushly ornate art-deco style.
Olivia Riley remembers going to see the Isley Brothers in the 1960s, who literally rocked the house.
“Every time they sang ‘Shout,’ the audience threw their hands up, jumped up and down,” Riley said. “It was like the building was jumping up and down.”
The film’s producer and director, Karen Smyles, recalled as a young girl getting pulled across town from West Philadelphia to the Uptown by her older sister.
“I was probably seven or eight and my sister was in her teens, but I have very vivid memories of seeing people like James Brown and The Supremes and The Four Tops,” Smyles said. “I always had this in the back of my mind to do something. There had been some small things, but I couldn’t believe that no one had done anything about the history of the Uptown.”
“I know it’s just a matter of tiiiime,’” Marilyn Kai Jewett spontaneously sings in the film. She was a regular audience member at the Uptown, remembering the 1967 Magnificent Men hit, “Peace of Mind.”
“Oh, yeah, we loved that,” she said.
The film features archival interviews — most shot by WHYY over the years — with musicians and celebrities who have since died, like DJ and presenter Georgie Wood, Jerry Blavat, house band leader Sam Reed and Mary Wilson of the Supremes.
“Some of the really important acts were comedians,” historian Bryant Simon says in the film. Performers like Moms Mabley, Pigmeat Markham, and Redd Foxx were often booked as opening acts.
“They performed early,” Simon said. “And they killed.”
The film also features newly shot material by artists who had hits at the Uptown decades ago, performing them anew in studio. Philly native Barbara Mason, now 76, had a hit in 1965 with “Yes, I’m Ready,” a song that is still routinely heard in oldies formats. In the film she accompanies herself on piano.
Mason’s performance during production of the film came as a surprise to Smyles, who thought it was a long shot.
“Her song is one of those songs that everyone knows no matter how old you are. You hear it in the supermarket, in department stores,” Smyles said. “I’m not usually like that, but I was really hesitant because I thought she would say no. So when she said yes we were just, like, ‘Wow! This really happened!’”
Though the film takes a nostalgic trip of the Uptown, the story of the theater is not over yet, according to the Uptown Entertainment and Development Corporation, a nonprofit that has been trying to revive it for two decades.
Even long after the theater shuttered, the current board chair, Monifa Young, has her own Uptown story.
Her mother, Linda Richardson, founded the Uptown Corporation in 2001 and conscripted Young into its ranks at just 10 years old, answering phones.
“She received a call from Teddy Pendergrass, and told us to take a message,” Young recalled. “He’s like, ‘Do you know who I am?’ At the time I didn’t. He was offended that she was not making time for him. Then she explained who he was, and I knew at that moment that she was a big deal.”
Richardson died in 2020, leaving behind an unfinished restoration project. Since then Young, who directs an education outreach program at Community College Philadelphia, has taken over a leadership position.
The Uptown remains closed with no plans to reopen anytime soon. The Uptown Development Corporation has launched community programs, such as Uptown Youth Got Talent, a science and art-based STEAM education program (“The ‘M’ stands for both Math and Music,” Youth said), and the neighborhood radio station Uptown Radio WJYN 98.5FM, whose micro-transmitter antenna is atop the theater. Programming happens across the street, in the Development Corporation’s offices. Uptown Radio is also a community partner in WHYY’s News & Information Community Exchange (N.I.C.E.) program.
“When some folks feel like there’s no progress being made on the theater, they don’t understand how many programs we actually have,” she said.
As for the theater itself, Young said there still needs to be substantial structural stabilization. The organization is sometimes called upon to make presentations about the unique architecture and social history of the building, but tours of the actual building, by appointment, have slowed.
“The Uptown Theater: Movies, Music, and Memories” will premiere on Tuesday, February 13, at 7:30 on WHYY-TV Channel 12. At the same time it will also be screened in-person at Temple University’s Center for Anti-Racism, Mazur Hall, 1114 Polett Walk, Room 140.
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