Future for Uptown Theater uncertain, $7 million needed

Although some renovations have been made on the interior, those working on restoring the theater said a lot more work needs to be done before reopening.

The Uptown Theater, located at 2240 N. Broad St., has been shut down since 1991. | MICHAEL SOTTILE TTN

Yumy Odom moved to Philadelphia in 1988, long after the Uptown Theater’s heyday ended in the 1970s.

“I know the history of it, but I’ve never seen it really alive,” said Odom, chair of the Uptown Entertainment and Development Corporation.

The UEDC has been seeking to restore the theater since its purchase in 2002 and actively began renovations in 2011. The Temple News last reported on renovation progress in September 2014. Though a little more than a year has gone by, it doesn’t seem like much has changed on the building’s exterior.

The main impediment has been funding, Odom said—of the total $8-10 million needed, only about $3 million has been raised.

The current phase of the project is fundraising to repair the roof and the tower of the theater, projected to be completed by the end of the first quarter, said Linda Richardson, president of UEDC.

Work on the tower was halted because of delays with the last contractor, Odom said, but he hopes to see “real changes in the theater this year.”

Renovations like repairing the seats in the theater, restoring the eroded gild, cleansing water damage and clearing out mildew will make the building operable again.

Fundraising efforts like an annual event with CBS3 and a garden party collaboration with the African American United Fund and East Coast Black Age of Comics help to reach the goals in the renovation process.

Additional funding comes from proposals, outreach to public sources, private investments and corporate fundraising.

Asking celebrities for assistance is not easy, Odom said.

“You can’t always have a campaign asking for money,” he said. “A lot of people don’t really appreciate this is where they got their start.”

The UEDC also runs the youth program Uptown Youth Got Talent Initiative, which organizes field trips and holds sessions to teach young people how to run a business in the entertainment industry, Odom said.

During this year, a community-based radio station, WJYN, will be launched and broadcasted from the Uptown’s tower. It will feature music and talk shows run by local participants.

The theater will also be open for tours on select days in the spring and summer.

Long-term goals like installing a proposed dance studio, a virtual museum and a gift shop will help “reactivate” North Philadelphia and create about 200 jobs, Odom said.

“This building is the economic fulcrum for North Philly,” he said. “North Philly is in need of economic build up to address blight.”

Richardson said she is optimistic about the project moving forward.

“We’ve been the last Art Deco movie theater to survive intact,” she said. “We’ve been able to do something that other well-funded projects have not.”

Richardson added restoring the Uptown is part of preserving the history of rhythm and blues in which many acts got their start, as well as offering a mid-sized performing arts venue for film showings and performances, owned by the African American community.

“[The theater] is an eyesore for most people, especially folks who want to see it become something,” Odom said. “It’s a very empty feeling people have.”

Richardson said the UEDC is not interested in selling the property.

“Most people who have approached us have wanted to make parking lots … shenanigans like that,” Odom added. “It’s really a slap in the face for what the Uptown is. They don’t see value in what is American history, Philly history, but also African-American history.”

Richardson said the Uptown will be fully operational by the end of 2017 if funding is in place.

Lian Parsons can be reached at lian.parsons@temple.edu or on Twitter @Lian_Parsons

CORRECTION: In a version of this article that appeared in print Feb. 2, 2016, it incorrectly states that Yumy Odom arrived in Philadelphia in 1998. The Temple News regrets the error. 

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