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On North Broad Street sits a relic of a different time, a time when segregation was the norm across America and black Philadelphia entertainers needed a place to showcase their talent.
Enter Georgie Woods, a legendary music promoter/producer with a vision for North Philadelphia, who in the late ‘50s converted an old movie hall into a concert hall. This concert hall went on to host shows featuring the likes of Stevie Wonder, The Temptations and Diana Ross just to name a few.
The late 1970s was a bittersweet time for the small North Broad Street theater. The end of segregation meant that black performers could play anywhere leaving small theaters like the Uptown adrift having lost their original purpose…or at least the business revenue from their original purpose.
A legendary building without a life after fading from the live entertainment business, two subsequent attempts to reopen the Uptown Theatre fell flat. One attempt to reopen the Uptown as a new theater in 1983 lasted less than a month. Another attempt to transform the theater into a church failed in 1991.
Enter Linda Richardson in 1995. A community activist for her entire adult life, Richardson knew that she was the right woman for the job.
“All my skills as a dancer, as an actor, as a community organizer led me to the perfect job of restoring the Uptown for the betterment of the community,” Richardson said.
Linda Richardson is the president of the Uptown Entertainment Development Corporation. The UEDC plans to transform the once thriving theater into something for the entire community. To reopen the Uptown not only as a theater, but as a technology center for children and a restaurant and recording studio for the entire community if all goes as planned.
But anyone who has been around the Uptown Theatre for long enough knows that things rarely ever go according to plan.
Under Richardson’s leadership, the UEDC was able to secure $2 million from the state and federal governments as well as $350,000 in federal stimulus money. Richardson estimates the project is going to cost around $5 million.
Thus, the June 2010 groundbreaking ceremony was also an attempt by the UEDC alongside state and federal representatives to get the funds it needs to succeed with this project.
“Hey look, you have the state, you have the federal, now all we need is some corporate sponsors to help the Uptown,” State Representative Jewell Williams said to the crowd of nearly 100 gathered on North Broad Street between Dauphin Street and Susquehanna Avenue.
Many are cynical about the reopening of the Uptown Theatre, but the mood remained optimistic as people reflected on the good times they had at the theater.
“Whenever I mention the Uptown, almost everyone who was born in Philadelphia that’s say, 40 or over, has an Uptown Story,” Congressman Chaka Fattah said to raucous applause.
State Representative Jewell Williams also reflected on the times he spent at the Uptown as a kid growing up in North Central Philadelphia. He entertained the crowd with stories about how he would get into the theater for free because he knew people from the neighborhood. He went onto discuss how he’d do favors for the artists and receive “shiny 50-cent pieces” as a tip.
“Remember when the Uptown cost 50 cents?” the keynote speaker at the groundbreaking Earl Young asked the crowd. “The Uptown is actually where I got my start.” Earl Young is the founder of the Trammps, most known for their 1978 hit “Disco Inferno.”
Nostalgia was certainly in the air surrounding North Broad Street during the latest ground breaking ceremony. Not just nostalgia for the theater itself, but nostalgia for a time when North Philadelphia was a thriving neighborhood, a time that the people trying to revitalize the theatre are hoping to bring back.
“I believe this is one of Philadelphia’s institutions that should be revitalized and restored,” Cecil Parker, a fan of the Uptown who came out to see its groundbreaking, said. “Hopefully this will be the centerpiece for revitalization of the area.”
Many see the long-term benefit of the Uptown’s revitalization, but Linda Richardson is trying not to look too far ahead, instead reflecting on the task at hand.
“It’s bringing jobs to the community,” Richardson said. “We estimate that 200 jobs will be available for people in the community.”
Richardson has been working on this project for 15 years now and hopes that her hard work will pay off in the form of a completed project by the fall of 2012. But for now Richardson, Williams, Fattah, Young and all of North Central Philadelphia are happy to see their theater getting the attention they feel it deserves.
“This institution is going to be reborn,” a happy Chaka Fattah said proudly as he addressed the crowd. State Representative Jewell Williams concurred with his positivity.
“God bless the memories of the Uptown Theatre and let’s bring them back.”
To learn more about Linda Richardson and her work for the Uptown Theatre, click here.
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