Church Brings New Spirit To Failing Uptown

Posted: November 06, 1990

For most of its 57 years, the Uptown Theater was hallowed ground for great performers. For the last 10, it has been the burial ground for lofty dreams.

The latest to die was a plan by developer Willard G. Rouse and a group of black investors to turn the once-regal building on North Broad Street into the heart of a $32 million cultural arts district.

When the project fell through last spring, the Rev. Reid Prettyman was there to catch the theater - with a tithe bucket.

Mr. Prettyman believes his chances of success are better than any of his predecessors'.

For one thing, he doesn't plan to make a profit, only build a congregation. And he believes he has the most reliable of backers - God.

Mr. Prettyman, a former thief and drug addict from South Philadelphia, is the founder of True Light Community Ministries. Sunday mornings, he can be found on the Uptown's stage, preaching in front of footlights that once shined on Stevie Wonder, The Jackson Five and The Modern Jazz Quartet.

"You're never going to have access to anything unless you own it," Mr. Prettyman told the congregation, which filled about two-thirds of the 1,400 royal blue seats on Sunday. He practices what he preaches.

Mr. Prettyman said he raised the $300,000 down payment from the congregation's weekly collections and fund-raising events. Three banks turned down his request for a loan, he said, so he worked out a mortgage agreement with the owners, Rouse & Associates and the Baron Development Group Inc. Two weeks ago, they signed the papers.

Robert MacIver, an attorney for Rouse, said the theater was sold for more than $600,000. The Rouse and Baron partnership, Uptown Center Associates, holds the mortgage, he said.

The property was on the market for about a year, MacIver said.

"Obviously, at some point it was felt that the project simply wasn't feasible," he said.

Since the sale, the big glass doors have carried the triumphant message in taped paper capitals, "SOLD TO TLC." Standing at the doors during Mr. Prettyman's sermon were several security guards carrying walkie-talkies. Guards stood at the foot of the sweeping staircases, along the aisles of the auditorium and at the edge of the stage.

"This area hasn't been known as a place where nothing happens," said Mr. Prettyman. He wants worshippers to feel secure, and know that when they leave church, their cars won't have left without them.

Two years ago, when he was guarding the ministry's former headquarters on North 33d Street in the Strawberry Mansion section, he fired a 12-gauge shotgun at a burglar, killing the man as he tried to escape through a bathroom skylight. No one was charged in the incident, according to the District Attorney's Office.

The church has been holding services at the Uptown since March, when Mr. Prettyman started leasing the space from Rouse.

Some of Mr. Prettyman's followers find it odd to be worshiping in the theater where they used to pay to hear singers like James Brown and groups like Speedo and the Cadillacs.

"All of a sudden, it turned into a church. It's strange," said Nancy Cooper, 40, a teacher's aide who had gone to shows at the Uptown for years.

But the walls must feel it was destiny.

When it opened in 1929, one of the theater's interior features was intensely colored glass murals depicting man's evolution, beginning with the Garden of Eden. They were described in one newspaper account as a "bizarre offering to the deity of amusement."

The theater managed to adapt to changes in the entertainment business - the talkies, vaudeville, movies, and then rhythm and blues.

Competition from behemoth stages like the Spectrum contributed to the demise of the Uptown in the 1970s. But nothing was more poisonous to business than the violence and crime in the neighborhood around North Broad Street and Susquehanna Avenue.

One owner after another has hoped to prosper, and watch the salutory effects spread to other businesses. It hasn't happened.

In 1981, John Bowser bought it for $3.1 million, using mostly city, state and federally guaranteed loans. He renamed it the Nu-tec, New Uptown Theater and Entertainment Complex, with hopes of reviving the community's pride and economic health.

But after Bowser died in 1983, Nu-tec defaulted on the loans. His widow claimed in a lawsuit that the city had agreed to provide Bowser with a federal grant to help pay for the theater's renovation. The city ended up paying $1 million to settle the lawsuit.

In 1985, the Rouse and Baron group bought the building for $402,000.

"The hope is that we will create enough of a place where artisans - particularly black artisans, but black or white artisans - will be able to live and to work and, in fact, meet with and display their work to the public," Rouse said at the time. "If we can create . . . that kind of sense of place, then we will have succeeded, I think, in some of our fonder dreams."

Mr. Prettyman's aspirations are not substantially different. In addition to using the theater as a church, he and his wife, Pamela, intend to maintain it as an entertainment complex.

"Since we're at the Uptown and it has a history," he said, "we want to continue having the shows. But just quality things. Things that are not just for the money." They are booking two plays, a rap group and a contemporary Christian music concert for early next year. Proceeds will go to the church.

True Light Ministries runs a food co-op and an after-school tutoring program for children, he said. Mr. Prettyman hopes to organize the congregation to pool its resources and buy real estate. He encouraged members, most of whom are between 15 and 35 years old, to support one another's businesses.

The musical director for the ministry is Raymond Johnson, who used to sing with the Stylistics. Johnson leads a group - including a cellist, two violinists, a trumpeter and four vocalists - which provides the music for Prettyman's sermons.

Mr. Prettyman's preaching on Sunday focused on the central message that prayers alone cannot solve economic and social problems among blacks. He mimicked believers who cry, "I'm saved, full of the Holy Ghost," and then turned to the congregation: "You're full of a lot of other stuff, too."

Mr. Prettyman, 40, said he was ordained by Bishop Ida Hosa of Nigeria. He tries to be as direct and down to earth as possible, he said during an interview. In his sermon he had poked fun at flamboyant ministers who stage miracles by having chicken blood drop from the ceiling, but do not give followers practical advice.

Failure, he said, is an inevitable part of success. "The Wright Brothers didn't talk about the 99 times they failed. They only talked about the time they flew," he said.

This time, he believes, the Uptown has the power to maintain altitude.

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