The historic Uptown Theater on Broad Street near Dauphin that once hosted international stars like Michael Jackson and Patti LaBelle will partially open for community use this year, its 90th anniversary.
The Uptown Entertainment and Development Corporation, the Community Development Corporation for North Central Philadelphia, is running the $14 million project to preserve the last art-deco style movie theater in Philadelphia, but has hit setbacks for funding, said Linda Richardson, president and CEO of the CDC.
The CDC started a 90-day donation challenge on Feb. 1, encouraging people to donate $90 to the renovation project until April 30 for the theater’s anniversary, and has been working with an undisclosed partner for funding, Richardson said.
“As a community group that has worked on keeping a building of that age intact, it has been a challenge and a source of pride,” Richardson said.
The theater, which opened in 1929 and is on the National Register of Historic Places, is in its second stage of a five-stage renovation process that is expected to be fully complete by 2020, Richardson said. In 2007, The Temple News reported that the CDC was starting redevelopment without having all the funds to complete it.
The theater’s transformation has so far been funded by individual donors and public grants from the state. In February 2018, the CDC received a $500,000 award from the Redevelopment Capital Assistance Program, a state assistance program that matches funds for improvement projects with “regional impact.”
The updated building will have 2,100 seats, a redeveloped auditorium, balcony, additional parking and a direct entrance from the Susquehanna-Dauphin Broad Street Line station.
The theater is historic and significant to the African-American community for its rhythm and blues and early rock ’n’ roll music scene.
“We can contribute to the architectural value of the art-deco facade and be able to celebrate the history of what happened in the Uptown with it being the part of the rhythm and blues movement,” Richardson said.
Lawrence Henson, who has lived on Park Avenue near Dauphin Street since 1952, said he played drums for an R&B band at the Uptown for three years in the 1950s. Henson remembers chitlin circuit nights when people would line up along several streets to see the nation’s up-and-coming African-American R&B, jazz and early rock ’n’ roll musicians.
“I’ve been on the stage with Smokey [Robinson], The Temptations, you name it,” Henson said. “The Uptown and the Apollo are almost identical, except the Uptown is bigger. The Uptown would have four shows a day and a midnight show on Friday.”
Loris Poppler, who worked as a bartender at the Uptown when it was a prominent club in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, is looking forward to the theater’s reopening.
“That would be wonderful for the community,” said Poppler, who lives on Diamond Street near 17th. “It was great when I was young. That would be awesome for jobs.”
Since the CDC purchased the theater in 2002, it has conducted surveys, progress updates, information and programs, to keep the community informed about the renovation, Richardson said.
As the renovation progresses, Richardson will hire tour guides, parking instructors, youth program directors and theater equipment and lighting technicians, she said. The theater will hire people with various levels of experience, she said.
“We’re looking to provide opportunities for young promoters, producers and performers who weren’t around to see the theater in its heyday,” Richardson said. “We want to create a new era of entertainment.”
The CDC is working with community development students in the Tyler School of Art to help spread the word about the theater’s progress by sharing information on Main Campus. In October, the Uptown plans to hold a masquerade ball in the theater’s lobby as its 90th-anniversary celebration and will welcome community and student performances.
Dylan Brown, a sophomore community development major, began working at the Uptown Theater in September 2018. He’s a member of the Temple Community Development Club, which is encouraging students in the community development program to get involved with the Uptown’s reopening.
“This theater is really important to the people that have worked with it and grown up with it,” Brown said. “It’s super historic. It has a lot of significance. It’s just something really good for the community.”
The theater will kick off its 90th anniversary year on Saturday with the lighting of the Uptown’s marquee at 7 p.m. The event will be open to the public.