The recent torrential rainstorms left many residents with flooded basements, trees on top of their homes and their streets turned into rivers. You know things are bad when you see residents being rescued by boat from their own homes. Driving to work afterward was an unforgettable experience. Radio reports indicated that many of our main thoroughfares were flooded. Some railroad routes had shut down. Thus, I ignored my customary route downtown and managed to navigate through North Philadelphia streets that I had not traveled in years. Eventually, I ended up on North Broad Street near Allegheny Avenue. While the drive, toward City Hall was slow, boring and frustrating, my spirits were lifted when I reached the 2200 block of North Broad. Bumper-to-bumper traffic stopped me for several minutes in front of 2240 North Broad in front of a building that brought back warm memories of sitting in the audience of The Uptown Theater, back in the day.
I cannot imagine there are many people who grew up in Philadelphia in the ’50s and ’60s who had not been to a live performance at The Uptown. This was a major venue for entertainment for Black audiences and performances. Back then, the horrors of segregation limited places where Blacks could gather for entertainment. Upper North Philadelphia was home for upper and upper-middle class whites who lived in fashionable mansions and Victorian brownstones. Lower North Philadelphia was home for the up-and-coming white business class. Obviously, The Uptown Theater was a perfect place for entertainment for the well-to-do whites of North Philadelphia. It could seat 2000 people. Even though it was more than 30 years after its opening before I attended a show there, it was still a magnificent building; with stained glass, high ceilings and terracotta designs. As times changed, due to declining employment and limited business opportunities in the area, white residents fled, leaving behind Black professionals; both middle class and lower class. The Uptown Theater opened for white audiences in 1929. In 1951 a gentleman named Sam Stiefel purchased the building to host live music shows for Black audiences. While the Apollo Theater in Harlem was viewed as the ultimate for Black performers along the so-called “chitlin’ circuit,” The Uptown was its rival here in Philadelphia. I never went to the Apollo, but I can tell you from personal experiences that what I saw at The Uptown would have been hard to match at any theater anywhere, back in the day.
My trips by trolley and subway from home in West Philadelphia to North Philadelphia’s Uptown Theater were unforgettable. At that time, it was safe to travel through that part of the city. We did not fear for our lives as we traveled to and from these shows; shows which provided opportunities to observe highly talented artists perform. There was a matinee, an early evening and a midnight show. While I do not recall the exact prices for the shows, they could be considered a bargain, as we could see ten or more acts at each show. Even accounting for inflation and cost of living in the past, I am certain you will agree that 50 cents to two dollars was not much for a show with so many acts.
The Uptown Theater was popular for its amateur nights, where artists would compete for prizes. As a 17-year-old member of a vocal group, Herb Johnson and the Ambassadors, I vividly recall participating in one of The Uptown’s amateur nights, back in the day.
The Uptown’s large marquee is hard to miss as you drive by. What you miss now are the names of artists that appeared in large bold letters in the past. If you are a rhythm and blues fan and attended this theater back then, I know you can still see names on the marquee, of performers such as Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, The Olympics, Jackie Wilson, Jerry Butler and the Impressions, and many others. Most of us learned who was appearing at The Uptown through radio advertisements. However, sometimes we would go without knowing who was appearing. Because of the reputation of The Uptown Theater, we knew we would have a great time, and we would often stand in long lines, always dressed up, for admittance. There were several hosts for Uptown shows, including Kae Williams and Jocko Henderson. However, Georgie Woods of WDAS-AM radio was the most popular host. He brought to the stage the most popular and dynamic artists, and hosted shows the longest. The show’s routine was always the same; it started with the house band under the direction of band leader Bill Masse, and later, Sam Reed. After the initial selection, Woods would come tiptoeing onstage with a bell that he would clang when introducing new acts. I clearly remember his image; he seemed to have no rhythm, but obviously had the business acumen and relationships to put together unforgettable shows. Each began with a comedian. But there was one comedian who did not start the show, as she had star billing. Some of you recall her proclamation that, “The only thing an old man can do for me is to show me the way to a young man.” You must know that I am referring to Jackie “Moms” Mabley.
If I close my eyes today, I can still see and hear the sounds of The Drifters, The Eldorados, The Dubs, Donnie Elbert, Stevie Wonder, and The Chantels. I can still see the vocal groups, all dressed alike. Their choreography was always outstanding, with each group trying to outdo the others. I understand that Woods booked The Supremes for ten days for $400. I remember well the shows that were advertised under the theme, “Battle of the Groups.” There was one vocal group I thought was extraordinary, and I found myself in the Uptown whenever they appeared. That was The Flamingoes; a group that had multiple lead singers. If you know rhythm and blues, you must remember their recordings of “I’ll Be Home,” “Golden Teardrops,” or “I Only Have Eyes for You.” I never saw The Heartbeats, my favorite rhythm and blues vocal group, at The Uptown, but the Flamingoes made up for my disappointment. So did two other outstanding groups. Though it was more than 50 years ago, I can still see Little Anthony and the Imperials and The Blue Notes of “If You Love Me” fame in performance.
The Uptown Theater contributed to the Civil Rights Movement with the production of Freedom Shows, in which artists promoted the cause through their performances. Shows at The Uptown also contributed to the economic development of the neighborhood. After all, the performers needed places to eat, to have their hair done, accommodations for sleeping and places to purchase outfits for their performances. Changes in the economic fabric of the neighborhood contributed mightily to the demise of this theater. Ultimately, it would become a movie house and eventually a place or worship; physical decline finally resulted in its closing. However, we cannot ignore the impact of integration in making a venue such as this obsolete. The integration of the music industry where Black artists crossed over to popular music and white artists and white music lovers became more involved in Black music became the norm. This crossover also dictated the need for larger facilities. Thus, places like The Uptown Theater were no longer only for Black performers and audiences. After several failed attempts, efforts are currently underway to renovate this marvelous edifice. Thus, there is a chance I could drive down Broad Street in the near future, not to get to work, but for a fun evening; a fun evening to watch live performers at the Uptown Theater, as I used to do back in the day.
Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St., Philadelphia, PA 19146.