Philadelphia’s historic Uptown Theater saved by a new generation of leaders

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Renovations at North Philadelphia’s historic Uptown Theater are moving forward again, despite setbacks ranging from pandemic delays to the loss of several board members.

The renowned performance space holds a special place in the hearts of many residents. But the 2,100-seat venue played a more practical role for Olivia Riley. Yes, the star-studded concert posters were a draw – but she spent so much time in the theater because her mother worked there.

“I was quite famous because everyone knew my mother. Everyone wanted to be my friend, so they could come to the show for free,” she laughed of memories of being a teenager in the late 1950s. and his childhood in the shadow of Uptown.

The Art Deco building at 2240 N. Broad St., between Susquehanna and Dauphin, was a hub for black arts and business in mid-century North Philly.

Riley is now the official historian for the Uptown Entertainment and Development Corporation, a non-profit organization whose mission is to rejuvenate the nearly 100-year-old site.

Founded in 1995 by the late Linda Richardson, who passed away in 2020, the organization is gradually transitioning into the stewardship of a new generation.

The last two years have been difficult, marked by the loss of six UEDC members. In addition to Richardson, two other board members died, including co-founder Andrea Brown. Also gone: a staff member who worked in the facilities, a photographer and a retired administrative staff member who was an active volunteer.

Monifa Young, Richardson’s daughter, said Brown and her mother tried to nurture the next generation, but “they had some tough shoes to fill.”

Prior to the recent seismic shift, Young was in a situation similar to Riley’s half a century ago – “involved by default” due to her mother’s job. Already a grant writer and coordinator of the organization’s youth program, Young became chair of the board after members of the organization “strongly asked” her to take on the role.

In some ways it feels like a start over, she said, but UEDC is now successfully moving forward with long-established projects while bringing new voices and more of the community into the fold.

Kimberly Paynter / WHY

The five-story theater was built as a movie palace in the 1920s and became an important site for doo-wop, R&B and jazz artists in the 1950s and 60s. Downtown was seen as a creative hub of stars on the Chitlin Circuit – a touring route for African-American artists that spanned the South and touched major cities in the Northeast and upper Midwest.

“The idea was that if they got to Uptown, they were really good,” said historian Riley, noting that it was the last stop before the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

The place closed in the late 70s and ownership changed hands several times before Richardson stepped in. In 2018, Richardson was excited about new initiatives planned as part of a building renovation.

Plans still include concrete designs for setting up a restaurant, dance and radio studios and space for youth programming in the 50,000-square-foot theater, according to the current board chairman. administration, Young. Ideas like opening an R&B museum and a daycare center are still being explored.

However, “like every other construction project in the country, there have been delays,” Young said. “It has to do with what’s happening in the world in terms of materials not being as affordable as they used to be.”

Despite practical and personal challenges over the past two years, UEDC has found ways to play an active role in the community.

As an educator in Philadelphia, Young knew that school lunches were often the only meals students had on a daily basis, so when COVID forced the closings, she sprang into action.

“As soon as we heard the schools were going to close, Linda and I were on Broad Street … handing out snacks and food from our food bank,” she said. The initial response turned into a weekly food bank giveaway with Grands as Parents, an organization that supports grandparents and non-parents raising children.

UEDC was one of the first organizations to collaborate with the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, Young said, bringing free testing to North Broad early in the pandemic.

Last fall, an offshoot called Uptown Youth Got Talent received $17,000 from the city’s Anti-Violence Community Grant Program, funding a youth education program that provides workforce development training. and hones artistic abilities.

Lady O (centre) and Lateef White (right) present their show 'Tall Talk' with guest, engineer and performer Extra Kach (left)
Kimberly Paynter / WHY

A few months later, Uptown Radio, launched by UEDC in 2016, received a $50,000 grant from the Independence Media Foundation. He also joined WHYY’s News and Information Community Exchange, a self-help journalism cohort.

Lady O. is a co-host of a weekly talk show called “Tall Talks” on the station, which broadcasts as WJYN 98.5 FM and operates from a space across from the theater. She recounted efforts “to combat the fake news that was being riddled in our community” by airing daily public service announcements that tracked COVID measures and discussed safety measures.

She first became involved with Uptown Radio in 2018, through the show’s co-host Lateef White, a friend who had helped with UEDC’s work. White is now the station’s director of operations and sits on the UEDC board of directors. It recently expanded educational offerings with an “Introduction to FM Radio” course for local youth.

“It’s the first formal class we’ve had,” White said, “but it’s a tradition for us to bring people in when we have some free time to show them how to do things.” The class is open to people ages 10 to 18 and teaches FCC guidelines, interviewing skills and broadcast production techniques, giving neighbors the tools to tell their own stories – the cornerstone of the work of the hosts.

Lady O.’s talent for connecting listeners to resources led her to work with Temple’s School of Dentistry, to raise awareness of the school’s affordable patient clinic in Northeast Philadelphia. Typically, “Tall Talks” draws inspiration from entertainment news to open discussions about mental health and conflict resolution, as the two hosts address the stress that can come from living in underserved areas of the city. .

“People need to know that they are not alone and that they feel there is a resource for me. We often share resources where people can get help,” White said.

The Uptown Theater was built in 1924
Kimberly Paynter / WHY

Drawing on the example set by his mother and his own work in the community, Young has a vision for the renovated theater: “To be accessible, to serve underrepresented and underserved communities, and able to provide information, community education and training. »

Ideally, she says, the new Uptown Theater would create about 200 jobs in the area and regain its role as a place that played a key role and was a hub in the community.

“It was just the place to be,” said Riley, the Uptown historian. “There was so much excitement with all the acts there in North Philly, it was just electric.”

Surrounding businesses have also benefited from the community’s enthusiasm. Back then, places like Don’s Doo Shop and The VP Club hosted famous artists, from Motown Review roster talent to artists like The Isley Brothers and Aretha Franklin, and comedians Slappy White, Moms Mabley and Redd Foxx.

Some moments from those years stand out for Riley, like when she got to watch a teenage Patti Labelle sing “Somewhere over the Rainbow” in a nearly empty auditorium while warming up, or when an Isley Brothers performance of their hit “Shout!” sent the crowd into such excitement that “the whole building seemed to jump”.

The UEDC plans to blow up the theater again, but disruptions in recent years have made Young wary of saying exactly when. “Last time we gave a media interview, we said the theater should be finished by 2022.”

Propelled by the historic ties that drew people like Young and Riley into the nonprofit’s fold, and the new bonds forged through ongoing education and community engagement, people at the ‘UEDC say they are dedicated to North Philadelphia, and for the long term.

The organization’s mission is summed up in an Uptown Radio slogan shared by Lady O.: “We unite generations by building community.

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