Changing Skyline: Uptown on verge of a remake

The lobby of the Uptown Theater in 1982. With nearly $2 million in hand, the Uptown Economic Development Corp. expects to begin renovating the North Broad Street building in July.
The lobby of the Uptown Theater in 1982. With nearly $2 million in hand, the Uptown Economic Development Corp. expects to begin renovating the North Broad Street building in July.
Posted: June 04, 2010

The tales of glorious old movie palaces that have been effectively buried alive are starting to form a distinctive genre of their own. Forsaken by their owners, these theaters are left to rot until - one day! - they are rediscovered by a band of pure-of-heart film buffs who recognize their true beauty beneath the dust and bad renovations.

Epic struggles ensue. Money is sought. But much of the time, a happy ending remains beyond their grasp. This region's roster of long-running tearjerkers includes Center City's Boyd Theatre, North Philadelphia's Uptown, Haddon Township's Westmont, and the Lansdowne Theater.

In a crowd like that, who would have thought that a poor orphan like the Uptown would emerge as The One?

The Uptown's devoted fans have finally secured enough funds to start renovating the handsome, latte-hued art deco building on North Broad Street, one of Philadelphia's last great neighborhood theaters, and once the city's answer to Harlem's famous Apollo Theater.

With almost $2 million in hand, including $350,000 from the federal stimulus program, the Uptown Economic Development Corp. expects to begin construction in July, says its president, Linda Richardson. Her group's task will be to restore the colorful tiled facade of the historic 1929 building, designed by Philadelphia's Louis Magaziner, and rehab the four office floors above the theater.

As for the original 2,040-seat auditorium, it will have to wait for the sequel.

While the two-phase project won't immediately bring back movie nights, the effort is still a big step for the storied theater, which hosted the likes of the Supremes, the Jackson Five, and James Brown during its days as a concert venue. If all goes according to plan, the office renovation should position the theater for a major comeback in a few years. The Uptown's nonprofit will launch the project with a 1 p.m. ribbon-cutting on Saturday.

How did the Uptown, on perennially struggling North Broad Street, between Susquehanna Avenue and Dauphin Street, end up as a plucky movie-house survivor?

Unlike many historic theaters, the Uptown has the good fortune to be part of a larger complex, one located on a still-vital commercial stretch just north of Temple University. Its upper floors will be rented this fall to provide income for the upkeep of the building, Richardson explained. Once back on its feet, she believes the Uptown will be able to raise money to renovate the ground-floor theater, a job now expected to run $5 million.

The Uptown has been down this road before. Its first revival occurred in the late '50s when the legendary music producer Georgie Woods converted the neighborhood movie house into a concert hall. In those pre-Civil Rights Act days, the Uptown was the city's premier showcase for black performers.

Part of the so-called chitlin circuit, the Uptown became a required stop for rhythm-and-blues groups, comedians such as Redd Foxx and Flip Wilson, and countless amateur-night competitions. One of the luckier amateurs, incidentally, was the white Temple University student Daryl Hall, who later became half of Hall & Oates.

But the end of segregation doomed theaters like the Uptown. When black performers could play anywhere, such small houses lost their reason for being. Woods shuttered the Uptown in 1978.

In 1983, the nonprofit Urban Coalition tried to reopen the theater as the Nu-Tec Uptown, but the venue closed in a matter of weeks. The theater was taken over by a church, which also ran into trouble. The building has been vacant since 1991.

Richardson came on the scene in 1995, and has stuck with the Uptown ever since, even when she said the nonprofit was unable to pay her salary. After the John Street administration released a master plan for North Broad Street in 2006, she goaded the city into giving the Uptown money to fix the roof and stop the destructive leaks into the lavishly decorated auditorium.

Arguing that the Uptown could be a powerful economic anchor for North Philadelphia, she eventually cajoled enough money from various agencies and individuals to begin renovations.

What's remarkable is that the Uptown's block has hung on through it all, and even improved in the last few years. Temple University's presence, both north and south, provided customers for the stores, while the West Diamond Street Historic District helped stabilize the adjacent residential streets.

The Uptown's block still has the feel of a neighborhood shopping street, with actually useful stores that sell groceries and cell phones. The northeast corner is held down by the Philadelphia Doll Museum, a hidden gem that houses a knockout collection of ethnic dolls and toys. Richardson sees the theater and museum as the nucleus of an arts district that would further help local businesses.

The Uptown's saga is certainly one that the other theater projects know well.

Having narrowly avoided the wrecking ball, the Boyd just lost its first committed developer, Hal Wheeler, in January to a fatal heart attack, and the ownership is now regrouping.

In South Jersey, the Westmont's supporters have endured years of legal wrangling, and were only just able to complete a business plan to turn the 1927 theater (once Steven Spielberg's local) into a film and performing arts venue.

The Lansdowne Theater, also opened in 1927, has been making a steady comeback following the Uptown model. Since the nonprofit Historic Lansdowne Theater Corp. took over in 2007, the group has gradually renovated the building's offices, which are now fully occupied.

It clearly takes more than the wave of a magic wand to rescue these old movie houses. In the meantime, we may have to settle for their survival.


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.

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