The sounds of music legends like The Temptations, Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5 used to reverberate through the grand hall of the Uptown Theater on Broad Street and Susquehanna Avenue, as guests from all over Philadelphia gathered in the magnificent art deco venue to join together in their love of the music.
This was the scene that drew John Oates, a Temple journalism alumnus and member of the famous duo Hall & Oates, from his suburban childhood home in North Wales, Pennsylvania to the Uptown Theater weekend after weekend.
The now-vacant theater, which once drew hundreds of people together to listen to the greats of rhythm and blues, was once the musical nexus of North Philadelphia. Now, a community organization is working to restore the beloved building back to its former glory.
Linda Richardson, president of the Uptown Entertainment and Development Corporation and current owner of the Uptown, has grand plans for the theater.
Her vision includes a 2,040-seat performance area, and an additional 50-seat area for student performances, artist lofts, office spaces and areas for community organizations to lease. Richardson calls this area the entertainment and educational tower. There it could host a range of genres from the Uptown’s staple R&B to gospel, spoken word and rap.
“Our vision is to provide opportunities for young promoters, producers and performers to be able to use the theater like it was back in the day,” Richardson said.
In an interview with student media after his acceptance on Friday of a Lew Klein Alumni in the Media Award, Oates reminisced on his many trips to the venue. Having the Uptown Theater nearby was one of the factors that led him to choose to attend Temple, he said.
“To me, it was a golden age of R&B music and I got to see everyone, I mean literally everyone: Otis Redding, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, you know, all the Philadelphia groups: the Delfonics, the Intruders,” Oates said.
It was at the Uptown that Oates learned to develop his craft.
“I saw some of the greatest performances, I began to understand stage craft, you know, how to put a show together, what turned people on, what made girls scream,” Oates added.
The famous theater opened in 1929 during the Great Depression and became a cornerstone to North Philadelphia. Originally a movie theater, it reached its height in the ‘60s as part of the chitlin circuit, a group of venues where African-American artists performed during the era of segregation. However, after violent crime grew more frequent and artists started traveling to larger venues, the theater began its decline. Georgie Woods, a famous African-American radio host, produced his last show at the Uptown in 1972.
In the ‘80s it reopened as a church, but was eventually shut down in 1991 after an ice storm.
Richardson said she hopes now not only to restore the grandeur of the building, but to establish it as a hub for the community which will bring together all its different segments, including Temple students.
“We think that the idea that the community residents and Temple students can utilize a venue that is not alien is an important statement for the community,” Richardson said.
“I envision the Uptown being what it was meant to be, which is a cornerstone in this community,” said Yumy Odom, chair of the UEDC program committee.
Since Richardson purchased the building in 2002, they have started the restoration of roofs, electric and plumbing systems and the terra-cotta tile along the walls.
However, in order to begin stage two, which includes restoration of the lobby and auditorium, they need more funding to continue their work.
“The whole goal is $8-10 million, out of that we’ve raised three,” Richardson said.
Once the UEDC has raised all the necessary funds, Richardson said the restoration will take about two years to complete. She said she hopes to have the entertainment and educational tower open in 2015.
That area will include a rehearsal studio, youth program offices, leasing for social services and other organizations. Once the building is completed, Odom said, it will house about 150 jobs for the local community.
Currently, Odom is focused on the Uptown Youth got Talent Initiative, an offshoot of UEDC. He hopes the youth he works with there will become the next set of performers in the theater.
Guadalupe Portillo, a block captain on the 1400 block of Norris Street and a longtime community resident, said she was hesitant to start celebrating due to the amount of time the building has been vacant. However, she said she would be happy to see the theater repurposed.
“I would like to see something positive come out of it,” Portillo said. “It’s a historical landmark.”
“It really is a beautiful building. It’s decayed,” Odom said. “The seats, the stage, the curtains, [are] all decayed but you can see the beauty in it, look at the old pictures, it really is a palace.”
Mariam Dembele can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org