The Uptown Theater: Legendary venue to community revival

The Uptown hosted artists like Aretha Franklin, The Supremes and alumnus John Oates from Hall and Oates.

While the theater is currently undergoing change, it has long been a part of Philadelphia’s culture. | FERNANDO GAXIOLA / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Since it was built in 1927, the Uptown Theater has woven its way into Philadelphia’s culturally rich history. Designed by renowned architect Louis Magaziner in the Art Deco style, the theater was initially part of the “Uptown Entertainment and Dance Hall,” a complex that included a ballroom, restaurants and other amenities.

“Different generations hanging together, big sisters dragging little sisters to performances, people from all walks of life, sharing similar memories,” said Mariama Wood, a board member of Uptown Development and Entertainment Corporation. “We want that back because there aren’t many venues where every generation can come and have a good time.”

The music-mecca closed in 1978, partially due to alleged violence in the community and the rise of other local, modern venues. The National Register of Historic Places added The Uptown to its list in 1982.

Linda Richardson, former president of UEDC and Wood’s mother, purchased the building in 2001. UEDC managed the $14 million renovation project in the years following, funded by individual donors and state grants, to preserve The Uptown Theater. 

UEDC planned on a partial reopening for community use in 2019, coinciding with the theater’s 90th anniversary, but stalls in the renovation process prevented the reopening. However, Richardson passed away in November 2020, and Wood has since continued to pursue her mother’s goal of reopening the historic doors of The Uptown Theater.

Restoring the theater to its once-revolutionary glory has always been UEDC’s driving goal. The restoration plan evolved to include creating commercial office space, a restaurant or cafe and a permanent space for Uptown Radio Philly, which first went on air in 2017, among other amenities, Wood said.

“We’ve always wanted to have a community garden and that idea comes from the community, we do listen to feedback from the community,” Wood said. “So having a community garden or park space is important as well.”

In 2020, UEDC extended renovation operations until 2022 because of funding challenges. The project was entering its final phase, which included the demolition of the first six floors, renovation of the roof, lobby, security system and upgrades to doors, windows, lights and the subway entrance. 

“There’s a need for theater for some of the known performers, but we also want to open it up to students, for after school programs and for homeschoolers or just anybody who needs community space to be able to perform their art,” Wood said. 


During its prime in the mid-20th century, the Uptown Theater was one of the premier venues for Black performers, especially during the era of racial segregation, said Bryant Simon, a history professor.

“The Uptown became this important venue for Black music in Philadelphia, particularly in North Philadelphia,” Simon said. “And so the next really 15 years through the late 50s, early 70s, anybody who’s anyone played Uptown.”

The theater typically showed about five acts a day during the week, six on the weekends and a midnight performance to round out the showings. The Uptown hosted legendary artists like James Brown, Aretha Franklin, The Supremes and 1970 Temple alumnus, John Oates alongside Daryl Hall, from Hall and Oates. 

“Many entertainers got their start performing at The Uptown Theater, the audiences let you know when you were good or when you weren’t so good,” wrote Diane Turner, a curator for the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, in an email to The Temple News. “The Uptown became a testing ground for groups like the Jackson Five.”

The Jackson 5 performing at Uptown Theater. | COURTESY / CHARLES L. BLOCKSON AFRO-AMERICAN COLLECTION

The theater served as a hub for the Black community in Philadelphia, providing a platform for cultural expression and community gatherings.

It also featured comedians like Slappy White, Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley. Georgie Woods, a legendary Philadelphia-based DJ and promoter, also hosted events and concerts at Uptown and was largely influential in tapping performers for the venue. Woods hosted “Freedom Shows” at the Uptown, raising money from events to fund various civil rights organizations. 

“The older generation now tells stories about how they begged their parents to let them go,” Simon said. “They got together the [$1.50] to go and then they would hide in the bathroom between shows, so they could see the show again.”


On Feb. 13, the documentary, “The Uptown Theater: Movies, Music, and Memories,” produced and directed by Karen Smyles for WHYY-TV, debuted in a showing at Temple’s Center for Anti-Racism.

“The Uptown Theater was a vital institution in North Philadelphia, particularly for documenting, celebrating and preserving black art and in many ways was a fixture in the community,” said Timothy Welbeck, director of the Center for Anti-Racism. “It was important to celebrate that history and to also show the interconnections between generations and art forms across eras.”

The documentary revisits the theater’s pinnacle historical role in R&B, soul, gospel and jazz.

“[The Uptown] was also a pretty robust jazz scene, Miles Davis played, Jimmy Heath, just an entire, amazing generation of Black musicians,” said Simon, who was also featured in the documentary.

Various guest speakers accompanied the showing, including Alfie Pollitt, a pianist, composer and entertainer from Philadelphia. Fred Joiner, who played with The Uptown’s resident house-band, also spoke and was joined by Aissia Richardson, another one of Richardson’s daughters. 

The event was held in honor of February’s Black History Month, especially as The Uptown was a fixture in the Black community for decades. The theater was a catalyst for innovation of the arts and it was important for the Center for Anti-Racism to portray the theater’s history in that way, Welback said. 

“Black art is one of the sustainers of Black life and the ways in which Black people have communicated their experiences and triumphs, joys, highs and lows, all have been found in the way in which Black people have communicated through the art, and transmitted various cultural expressions,” Welbeck said. “It was appropriate and fitting to host an event like this during Black History Month, particularly considering what the Uptown Theater has meant for Philadelphia.”


The organization is currently calling upon local community members to volunteer their time by offering their own expertise and knowledge. The UEDC is also accepting donations to support restoration efforts.

“I want to change the narrative to instead of, ‘What’s being done?’, to instead, ‘How can I help?’ because if people really ask the question, ‘How can I help?’ we have the answer,” Wood said.

The UEDC is currently in discussions with a new developer, both parties are planning a joint announcement of collaboration and an estimated reopening time frame for a later date.

As part of phase one, the UEDC is utilizing existing grants and funding from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development to help stabilize the building.

Those funds were also used for securing the theater’s entrance doors, windows, fencing and security cameras. The building still houses the Uptown Radio Philly station antenna, so securing the building remains a priority to prevent costly damages from trespassers.

UEDC also runs youth-focused programming in the buildings across from The Uptown. The programs available include job readiness training, leadership development, internships and a youth got talent program. Inspiring and empowering young people in North Philadelphia is another major goal for the group. 

“We will expand [the programs] when the theater development is finished because we’ll have a whole technology center and even some of the studio space we plan to rent out will be for local artists and students to do their performances,” Wood said. 

UEDC receives both public and private grants and funding, but the amount feels smaller in comparison to other similar projects in different areas and demographics, Wood said. However, that doesn’t defer UEDC from continuing to apply. 

“The staff has been tirelessly working to get the resources needed to restore the Uptown Theater, the staff have developed and maintained wonderful programs and activities and youth mentoring,” Turner wrote. “Once the Uptown Theater is restored the programs and activities will continue, the preservation and promotion of history of the Uptown Theater will carry on and mentoring of our youth will proceed.”

The ultimate goal for UEDC is to have The Uptown transcend the memories of generations across North Philadelphia. 

“There aren’t many venues where every generation can come and have a good time,” Wood said. “That’s what I can see, parents and kids coming in and everybody being able to participate in this neighborhood community project.”

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