A Tower of music and memories

Posted: September 19, 2007

A high, steel tower has loomed above the landscape at 69th and Ludlow streets since 1927. Evocative of the old RKO Pictures logo, the structure initially was topped off with a swirling, illuminated ball that could be seen for miles, and gave the Upper Darby showplace beneath it, the Tower Theater, its name.

Today, virtually all the other ornate "photoplay" (movie) and stage-show palaces of the Tower's size (originally 2,616 seats, now 3,119) and elegance are gone. And, sadly, that attention-grabbing light fixture no longer functions.

But thanks to the power of rock 'n' roll - with a little pop, comedy and R&B thrown in on the side - the Tower remains a beacon of light, luring concertgoers from far and wide to commune with their favorite entertainers.

What a history this place has wrought!

Stadium and arena superstar Bruce Springsteen once vowed he would never play any place larger than the Tower with his rock-'em-sock-'em E-Street Band. (In 1974 at the Tower, the band earned its then-biggest paycheck - $5,000.)

The British progressive-rock band Genesis - this week playing three big shows at the Wachovia Center (with tickets priced from $77 to $227) - made its Philadelphia-area debut at the Tower on Nov. 16, 1973. It was a midnight show, for which spectators paid all of $4. The band got $750.

The Tower was the area concert hall where Stevie Wonder made his landmark transition to adult-oriented, progressive soul music, introducing material from the incredible "Talking Book" disc. Legend has it that Georgie Woods, who'd promoted Wonder's prior shows at the Uptown Theater, didn't think his new music was any good, and so passed on doing the show at the North Broad Street hall!

Some notable live albums, a huge number of radio broadcasts and a sprinkling of videos have been made at the Upper Darby showcase - including David Bowie's "David Live," Hall & Oates' "Live at the Tower Theater," Average White Band's "Person to Person," Paul Simon's "Live at the Tower Theater" and parts of Steve Miller's huge hit "The Joker."

Also passing through its stage doors have been: Bob Marley & the Wailers, the Rolling Stones, Smokey Robinson, Al Green, Morrissey, Radiohead, a riot-inspiring Jane's Addiction, James

Taylor, Sheryl Crow, the Black

Crowes; and comedians George Carlin, Jon Stewart and Lewis Black.

This fall, the venue will play host to: Kings of Leon (9/21), Ben Harper (9/22), Regina Spektor (9/27), funnyman Jim Gaffigan (9/29), Gov't Mule (10/6), Tori Amos (10/15), American Idol Kelly Clarkson (10/18), Smashing Pumpkins (10/21-22), John Fogerty (11/3) and Neil Young (12/9.)

The Tower Theater was built at a cost of $1.25 million just two years before the Great Depression slowed (and then, after 1932, ended) Philadelphia's movie-palace boom. While not quite as fancy as contemporaries like the Mastbaum, the Earle and the Uptown, the Tower had its charms - decorated with lavish marble staircases, oriental rugs, handsome lobby furniture and glamorous art deco by Erte. A tuxedo-clad pianist tinkled a grand piano's keys in the foyer.

And the theater's interior oozed with movie-set atmosphere.

The walls were decorated in a trellised, English garden motif, while the ceiling twinkled with 150 stars.

Typical of the times, the theater had a house orchestra, plus a huge Wurlitzer organ that magically rose into view on a motorized lift to accompany the silent films still dominating the movie industry when the theater opened.

The biggest of three theaters in Upper Darby (the others were the 69th Street and the Terminal), the Tower offered vaudeville and burlesque stars on stage, plus the latest cinema features on screen. As vaudeville waned, movies became the staple. In the late 1950s and early '60s some multi-act, rock and soul music revues occasionally took over the stage.

By the early 1970s, the Tower had fallen on hard times. The theater was reduced to showing second- and third-run movies at a bargain $1 admission price. "The place was a mess. There were leaks in the ceiling, the paint was peeling, the carpeting was pretty bad," recalls Rick Green, who toured the place then with his older brother Stu. But as fans of the Fillmore East in New York - which wasn't such great shakes either, in the decor department - the 20-something Green brothers saw similar potential at the Tower. They made a deal with the owners - the A.M. Ellis Theater Co. - to turn the Tower into Philly's hottest rock-concert hall.

With the bucks the Greens were paying in rent - initially $800 per show night - Ellis started reinvesting in the theater, including more and nicer seats. And the Green brothers' Midnight Sun Concerts started bringing in progressive-rock acts with appeal to the coming-of-age boomer crowd (Dave Mason was their opener on June 14, 1972). They brought in: Springsteen, Electric Light Orchestra, the Bee Gees, Fleetwood Mac, Kiss, Renaissance, Jackson Browne, Procol Harum, Quincy Jones and Mr. Bowie - whose theatrically charged and amazingly rocking Fall of '72 "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" show shook up this kid but good.

Stu Green now allows that "R&B (rhythm and blues) music was really my thing." But the brothers (originally from North Jersey) discovered that "rock and especially anything British, did really well in this town."

They relied in part on guidance from DJs at then free-form WMMR, and also on "a 12-year-old kid who lived in an apartment adjoining the theater, Mike Hoffman," recalls Rick Green. "He was a diehard Anglophile with a British pen pal who would send over all the hot new releases, and Mike would clue us to them." (Hoffman is still turning people on to the good stuff, as proprietor of A.K.A. Music, 27 N. 2nd St.)

The Greens put on "about 100 shows a year - often two a night," notes Stu - until the rug was abruptly pulled out from under them in 1975. A member of the Ellis clan bargained away the Tower for $350,000 to Midnight Sun's larger competitor, Electric Factory Concerts. Midnight Sun still exists - as a Delaware County-based management and booking agency for bar bands.

As an element now of the Live Nation megaconcert operation, Electric Factory has kept the rock-hall vibe intact at the Tower, while gradually bringing the property back to respectability. The basement men's room no longer floods regularly. Seats, curtains and walls have been freshened up, the dropped ceiling in the lobby was removed to reveal the original fancy plaster work hiding beneath. The air conditioning works better, and if it gets too hot, you can now cool off with a beer from the lobby bar.

Midsize halls are gaining favor with touring acts like Clarkson - who originally had planned to perform this year in one of our nicer, 20,000-seat hockey rinks. So the Tower's future seems secure.

EFC chief Larry Magid even fought off the idea of his corporate parent to change the name of the theater to the Fillmore Philadelphia as part of a national branding stategy. (TLA took the hit instead.) Magid told a reporter in April that the Tower's legend loomed too large, even before he got involved in the operation:

"I saw rock 'n' roll shows there when I was a kid."

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|