Philly’s historic Uptown Theater is powering into the future with a new generation of leaders
Building renovations are picking back up, and community programming is expanding.
Feb. 19, 2022, 8:30 a.m.
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Renovations at North Philadelphia’s historic Uptown Theater are once again moving forward, despite setbacks and complications that range 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 bills were a draw — but she spent so much time at the theater because her mother worked there.
“I was pretty famous because everybody knew my mother. Everybody wanted to be my friend, so they could go to the show for free,” she said, laughing at memories of being a teenager in the late 1950s and growing up in the shadow of Uptown.
The Art Deco building at 2240 N. Broad St., between Susquehanna and Dauphin, was a nucleus for Black arts and business in mid-century North Philly.
Riley now serves as the official historian of the Uptown Entertainment and Development Corporation, a nonprofit with a mission to rejuvenate the nearly 100-year-old site.
Founded in 1995 by the late Linda Richardson, who died in 2020, the organization is steadily passing into the stewardship of a new generation.
The past two years have been difficult, marked by the loss of six UEDC members. In addition to Richardson, two other board members have died, including cofounder Andrea Brown. Also gone: a staff member who worked in facilities, a photographer, and a retired administrative staff member who was an active volunteer.
Monifa Young, Richardson’s daughter, said Brown and her mother had been trying to train the next generation, but “they had hard shoes to fill.”
Prior to the recent seismic shift, Young was in a situation similar to Riley’s a half century ago — “involved by default” due to her mother’s work. Already the organization’s grant writer and youth program coordinator, Young became board chair after organization members “strongly asked” her to step into that role.
In some ways it feels like starting over, she said, but the UEDC is now successfully making progress with long-established projects while bringing new voices and more of the community into the fold.
Providing for the neighborhood with food, COVID testing, and trustworthy radio shows
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 ’50s and ’60s. The Uptown was considered a star-making node on the Chitlin’ Circuit — a touring route for African American artists that ran through the South and hit major cities in the Northeast and Upper Midwest U.S.
“The idea was if they made it at the Uptown, then they were definitely good,” said historian Riley, noting it was the last stop before Harlem’s Apollo Theater.
The place shut down in the late ’70s, and ownership changed hands multiple times before Richardson stepped in. In 2018, Richardson was excited about new initiatives being 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 current board chair Young. Ideas like opening an R&B museum and a daycare 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 going on globally in terms of materials not being as affordable as they were before.”
Despite the practical and personal challenges over the past two years, UEDC has found ways to take an active role in the community.
As an educator in Philly, Young knew school lunches are often the only meals students have day-to-day, so when the COVID forced closures, she sprang into action.
“As soon as we heard that schools were going to be closing, Linda and I were on Broad Street … giving out snack packs, 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 offers workforce development training and hones artistic ability.
A few months later, Uptown Radio, started by the UEDC in 2016. was awarded a $50,000 grant by the Independence Media Foundation. It also joined WHYY’s News and Information Community Exchange, a mutual aid journalism cohort.
Lady O. is co-host of a weekly talk show called “Tall Talks” on the station, which broadcasts as WJYN 98.5 FM and operates in a space across the street from the theater. She recounted efforts “to combat the fake news that was being riddled in our community” by airing daily PSAs that tracked COVID metrics and discussed safety measures.
She first got involved with Uptown Radio in 2018, through show co-host Lateef White, a friend who’d been helping out with UEDC’s work. White is now the station’s operations manager and on the UEDC board. He recently expanded educational offerings with an “Intro to FM Radio” course for local youth.
“This is the first official class that we’ve had,” White said, “but it’s tradition for us to bring people in when we have free time to show them how to do things.” The class is open to people between the ages of 10 and 18, and teaches FCC guidelines, interviewing skills, and broadcast production techniques, giving neighbors the tools to tell their own stories — the cornerstone of the hosts’ work.
Lady O.’s knack for connecting listeners to resources has led to working with Temple’s School of Dentistry, to spread the word about the school’s affordable patient clinic in Northeast Philly. Generally, “Tall Talks” pulls from entertainment news to open up discussions on mental health and conflict resolution, as both hosts address the stress that can come with living in underserved parts of the city.
“People need to know that they’re not alone and feel like there is a resource for me. We often share resources where people can get help,” said White.
Honoring past glory and remaking a neighborhood linchpin
Building on the example set by her mother and her own work in the community, Young has a vision for the renovated theater: “To be accessible, serving underrepresented and underserved communities, and able to provide community news, education and training.”
Ideally, she said, the new Uptown Theater would lead to the creation of around 200 jobs in the area, and return to its role as a place that played a key role and was a linchpin 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 benefited from the community’s enthusiasm too. Back in the day, locations like Don’s Doo Shop and The VP Club hosted famous acts that passed through, from talent on the Motown revue roster to artists like The Isley Brothers and Aretha Franklin, and comedians Slappy White, Moms Mabley, and Redd Foxx.
Certain moments from those years stand out to Riley, like when she got to watch a teenage Patti Labelle sing “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” or when an Isley Brothers performance of their hit “Shout!” sent the crowd into such excitement that “the whole building seemed like it was jumping.”
The UEDC plans to have the theater jumping again, but the disruptions of the last few years has Young wary of saying exactly when. “The last time we gave an interview for a media outlet we said the theater should be done by 2022.”
Powered by the historical connections that drew people like Young and Riley into the nonprofit’s fold, and the new bonds built through constant community education and engagement, the people of UEDC say they’re dedicated to North Philadelphia, and in it for the long haul.
The organization’s mission is encapsulated in a Uptown Radio slogan shared by Lady O.: “We are bridging generations by building a community.”
Updated Feb. 25
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Linda Richardson, Monifa Young, Lateef White, Uptown Radio, Uptown Theater, Mutual Aid, Black Americans, Entertainment, North Broad Street