In February 1929, the Uptown Theatre opened as a premiere movie house, in line with a national trend for magnificent homes for a growing moving pictures industry. Perhaps a year from now, the Uptown might have another grand opening.
It was late last month that Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street offered a symbolic check for $1 million to Linda Richardson and her organization, the Uptown Entertainment and Development Corporation, which, in 1995, purchased that 50,000 square foot building in the 2200-block of North Broad Street.
UPTOWN THEATRE HISTORY
From 1951 to the late 1970s, the Uptown was an entertainment venue and grew legendary for its radio shows hosted by Georgie Woods and others. The acts of fame that performed on its stage read like a list of the most influential black musicians of the 20th century: Sammy Davis, Jr., James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Patti Labelle, the Temptations, Little Richard, Sugar Ray Robinson, the Jackson Five, Ike and Tina Turner, even comedians like Redd Foxx and Flip Wilson. It was part of the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” a series of venues friendly to black entertainers that stretched from Philadelphia and New York City to Chicago and Detroit to Baltimore and D.C.
“For people from a certain era,” Richardson said. “The Uptown was an icon, a place you wanted to be.”
While there are perhaps 18,000 Uptown Theatres in the country, including some, like ones in Chicago and Kansas City, that predate Philadelphia’s, none have its significance.
It is so like Philadelphia to have such an embarrassment of historical riches that something like Uptown has been reduced to a graffitied wall forgotten between a beer distributor and ancient rowhomes. Some want to change that.
“We wanted to stop the theater from being vandalized,” said Richardson, a North Philadelphia native, dancer and artist. “So, we raised some funds to acquire it.”
NEW UPTOWN RENOVATION
Of the $6.3 million needed to complete renovation, her group has just $2.5 million committed or in-hand, Richardson said. The balance has to be raised, so a capital campaign has begun, but construction is beginning.
The first phase, stabilizing the structure, is expected to be done by the end of the calendar year, now. The second phase is beginning the full-scale renovation of a building that has been out of regular use for decades.
Uptown hopes to be a lot more than an entertainment venue, though it hopes to reestablish its preeminence in that field additionally. Now, Richardson speaks more about the computer literacy training programs and mentorships that will be housed at Uptown, supplementing recording and film production centers and a restaurant.
“We believe Temple should be part of this community process,” she said. “We haven’t yet had any support from the administration, but our youth program is supported by Temple’s Community Education Program.”
Understand, there have been pushes to revive the Uptown before. All have failed. That might be why you might not know it. That might be why so few are willing to defend its rebirth. For all that is said of Mayor Street, he has been willing to defend it.
“He’s been a big boost,” Richardson said of Street. “The importance, for him, is that this is going to offer job transformation. Uptown should add about 200 jobs to this community.”
“We see ourselves as part of this movement to make Philadelphia a place where people want to come and work and raise families,” she said. “It’s time for a new century of entertainment.”
Christopher Wink can be reached at email@example.com.