It was a Golden Age in Philadelphia history from 1958 to 1972 when African Americans from all over the city, and even across the bridge in Camden, N.J., would venture en masse to Broad and Dauphin streets to take in the incredible R&B shows produced at the Uptown Theater by legendary disc jockey Georgie Woods.
The Uptown, an opulent Art Deco theater designed and built by Louis Magaziner, opened for business on Feb. 16, 1929 with an organ overture, a dedication address by Dr. Charles Beury, president of Temple University, news, and an all-talking feature attraction. The theater ultimately became a boon to the community, providing local residents with jobs, and businesses such as Don’s Do Shop (where Michael Jackson would get his hair cut) and the VPA Club with a steady stream of customers.
Then, there were the exciting R&B extravaganzas hosted by Woods, which sometimes played up to eight times a day, depending on how many people were in the line that wrapped around the corner and extended down Susquehanna Avenue.
For $1 admission, audience members could experience a show that featured such local artists as Barbara Mason, Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, and the Intruders, along with national stars including Jackie Wilson, Joe Tex and the incomparable Motown Revue.
Due to time and circumstances, Georgie Woods was forced to pull the plug on his once-popular concert series in 1972, and the Uptown eventually closed its doors in 1978. However, it appeared that the grand old theater would have a new life when in 1980, the building was reopened by prominent community activist John Bowser and his son Kyle, under the name New Uptown Theater and Entertainment Center (NUTEC). They operated NUTEC together until John Bowser’s death in 1983, and the legendary venue went dark once more.
In 1995, community advocate Linda Richardson formed the Uptown Entertainment and Development Corporation (UEDC), with the goal of purchasing the theater, and the acquisition was completed in 2001. Since then, the organization’s efforts to restore and reopen the theater have been ongoing.
Saturday, Feb. 16 will mark the 90th anniversary of the historic Uptown Theater, and the UEDC will kick off the year-long celebration with its new #LightItUp campaign. According to the organization, from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., there will be a community of people standing in front of the Uptown who have its rich history over the years, by either purchasing a ticket or having performed on the Uptown stage, to witness the lighting of the theater’s marquee. Sharmain Matlock-Turner, CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition will serve as the keynote speaker.
In addition to an evening of sharing memories, the UEDC will present for the first time what Philadelphia should expect in Fall 2020 when the doors officially open to the public.
The Uptown is far more than just a theater. It is the symbol of a happiness and optimistic time in Philly, and Linda Richardson recently provided an update on the UEDC’s mission to transform it into a viable venue on the Avenue of the Arts North, along with The Met Philadelphia.
“The renovation and restoration has had several phases,” Richardson said. “Our first phase was the infrastructure. Our second phase is the marquee, so on February 16 we’re going to be lighting up the marquee and that will signal the year-long celebration of the 90th anniversary of the Uptown, which is now the only remaining Art Deco movie theater that is impacting Philadelphia. Our second phase is going to be completing the infrastructure, and then we will begin working on the auditorium and balcony. On the 16th, we’re going to have an updated announcement of dates and times, and we hope to have a soft-opening on October 26, with a concert and a reception in the lobby of the Uptown.”
While small improvements are gradually taking place at the theater, including the colorful new mural by Mural Arts Philadelphia, which now adorns the front of the building, major renovations lie ahead.
“We have a contractor that has been doing some of the smaller work, but we’re gong to be working with, hopefully, a person, and we haven’t started the bid process yet,” said Richardson.
When asked about the greatest challenges in bringing the Uptown back to life, Richardson explained, “There are two challenges. One was the political will, which took some time, and now we have all of the North Philadelphia elected officials on board. (Pennsylvania state senator) Sharif Street has identified $500,00 for the theater. Our new elected state representative Malcolm Kenyatta has been a booster, and has identified some resources. We also have Congressman (Dwight) Evans, who is now honorary chair of the 90th Anniversary Committee.
“The second thing is obviously, resources, We started this campaign right at the beginning of the economic recession, in terms of acquisition and planning and fund development, and so now that the economy is better in some ways, we’ve got to identify resources. We’ve done most of the work from individual contributions, and the final challenge was identifying a major investor, and we’re hoping to make an announcement at the anniversary, in terms of the investor.
Following the marquee lighting, a VIP reception for those interested in participating in the UEDC’s “Light It Up 90 for 90” campaign will take place, in which friends, donors and supporters of the Uptown are being asked to sponsor $90 per person within a 90-day period. To attend, call (215) 236-1878 or visit www.philadelphiauptowntheater.org.