The former Logan Theater in Philadelphia has had many different lives, but after sitting abandoned for 20 years, it looks like it might be reinvented again.
The Logan Theater was built in 1924 for $1 million by the Stanley Cooper Company of America, designed by architects Hoffman & Hernon. The Stanley Company was a Philadelphia based enterprise founded in 1916 by brothers Stanley and Jules Mastbaum; by 1920 the company was had 24 theaters in the region and was worth $15,000,000. A 1926 merger added 225 theaters and made the Stanley Company the largest theater chain in the United States.
The Logan Theater was created in the Adamesque style, which employed neoclassical embellishments such as Roman decorative flourishes, painted ornaments, and a pastel color palette. In the Logan these included a fresco of a ship in the lobby and motifs of mythological creatures. The theater seated 1,894 patrons and screened silent films, opening with The Common Law featuring Corinne Griffith, one of the most popular and beautiful actresses of the silent film era. The show was accompanied by the orchestra, known as the Loganians, and a Kimball pipe organ. On the second floor there was a ballroom for events known as the Waltz Studio.
After the Logan made the switch to talkies, the events settled into relatively standard theater fare. The Logan Orchestra travelled to other cities to play, a series of popular cooking classes were held there throughout the 1960s, and the Miss Logan Beauty Contest was held there – and in later years, boxing matches were telecast in the theater, with perhaps the most famous being a heavyweight title fight between Muhammad Ali and Cleveland Williams in 1966. Other unusual events included a man collapsing and dying in the lobby in 1945, a purse snatching outside by a “footpad” in 1951, and an attempted robbery of the theater’s safe, also in 1951, in which the unsuccessful thieves settled with breaking into the vending machines and stealing candy and cigarettes. Perhaps my favorite odd story is that the theater was frequented in the 1950s and 1960s by the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile and its mascot Little Oscar (listed as 13 hot dogs tall). One of these events coincided with a yo-yo contest, and a boy accidentally hit Little Oscar on the head with his yo-yo while doing the loop-de-loop. Little Oscar chased the 10-year old up onto the roof of the Weinermobile before calming down.
The Logan’s last showing was on January 20, 1973. One of the films that day was Blindman, a now-obscure cult spaghetti western film featuring Ringo Starr, and the other was Trouble Man, a blaxploitation film that is about “a hard-edged private detective who tends to take justice into his own hands” and is on lists as both one of the 50 worst films of all time and the 50 best blaxploitation films of all time. Either way, RKO Stanley Warner sold the theater in May 1973 to the Deliverance Evangelistic Church.
Deliverance Evangelistic Church operated out of the theater for nearly two decades, and in 1985 a Philadelphia Inquirer article mentions that their congregation was 7,000 and services were standing room only. Deliverance Evangelistic Church, which had been founded in 1961, fought to bring services to the economically disenfranchised neighborhood around it; from 1970 to 1980 the population had declined by 25% and residents had to travel to other areas of the city for services such as banks and shoe stores. By 1990 the congregation had swelled to 9,000 and Deliverance Evangelistic Church made the decision to move 40 blocks away to a new building in the former Connie Mack stadium in 1992, where they remain to this day.
The Logan Theater remained vacant until 2005, when it was purchased by Dr. Owen Williamson. A Jamaican immigrant, Dr. Williamson had studied at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University and worked as a staff physician at Episcopal Hospital. He felt strongly about the need to help the “medically abandoned community” of north Philadelphia, where there was only one doctor for every 3,400 people, and despite jokes from fellow staffers about going to work in “Vietnam” he opened an office there. Dr. Williamson planned to reopen the theater as a music and events venue to serve to area, and envisioned naming it Claretildaville as a memorial to his late wife Claretilda. He repainted and fixed issues with roof leaks, but ultimately the project was too big and too expensive and remained uncompleted. Though I have been unable to verify when, I have heard that Dr. Williamson passed away, leaving both his practice and The Logan Theater vacant.
It was during this period that I visited The Logan Theater. Vandals had started spray-painting graffiti over Dr. Williamson’s new paint, and the lights in the were still on. It was heartbreaking to see how much work he had put into restoring the building to honor his wife, only to have people trying to destroy it at the first opportunity. The area desperately needs stable businesses and had Dr. Williamson been successful in reopening the building, it would have been a bright spot in an area that could use the economic and cultural investment.
Currently there are new plans to reopen The Logan Theater as a music venue. Nonprofit group The American Emerald Awards Foundation plans to rename the building the Cecily Tyson Music Theater, in honor of late actress Cecily Tyson, who is known for her work in movies such as Sounder, Fried Green Tomatoes, The Help, and Diary of a Mad Black Woman, among many others. Chief Operating Officer Damariz Winborne has scheduled a soft opening in February 2023 to loosely coincide with the theater’s 100-year anniversary, hoping that the Logan will become Philadelphia’s Apollo Theater, and help turn the area into a Black Broadway. According to Keshler Thibert’s recent Hidden City article, organizers hope that “the space will not simply be providing entertainment, but for giving back to the community. For example, a free meals program will take place during the holidays.”
It’s hard to say whether their plans will be met with success, but I certainly hope so. Arts and culture venues can spur the growth of businesses like restaurants in the area, and North Philadelphia needs and deserves the economic boost. Even if it isn’t named Claretildaville, seeing Dr. Williamson’s dream finally realized would be inspiring – and, in fact, when completed there are plans for a mural on the building featuring famous Black musicians and performers, and it will include Dr. Williamson and his wife Claretilda, reunited at last.
Matthew Christopher PA Philadelphia Aug 12, 2022 Abandoned Places Arts History