Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, The Temptations, Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and the Supremes, besides being renowned musical artists, all have one thing in common besides being famous musical artists; they all performed at the Uptown Theatre in Philadelphia, PA. Located in the North Central neighborhood of Philadelphia, the Uptown originally opened on February 16, 1929. The 2,040 seat theater was designed by the architectural firm of Magaziner, Eberhard, and Harris. It was built by Samuel Shapiro, who owned several theaters in the Philadelphia area, and was operated by the Warner-Stanley (Warner Bros) Theater Circuit.
The interior consisted of stained glass, high ceilings, and terracotta on the facade. Originally the color scheme of the auditorium was silver, gold, bronze, and black. The opening day celebration consisted of a showing of On Trial starring Pauline Fredrick and Bert Lytell and a Movietone address by Dr. Charles Beury, the president of Temple University. The Movietone sound system allowed the Uptown to show talking motion pictures as soon as it opened. Vaudeville acts were also part of the regular bill, and unlike many of its contemporaries, the Uptown held vaudeville performances until 1950.
In 1957, Philadelphia radio personality Georgie Woods began to produce shows at the theater. Woods was responsible for turning the Uptown into Philadelphia’s answer to Harlem’s Apollo Theatre by booking many famous African-American acts. He referred to the Uptown as “the grand jewel of entertainment for Black America.” The theater became part of the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” which was the informal name given to performance venues across the United States that were safe for African-American entertainers to perform during the period of segregation. According to R&B singer Ruth Brown, the Uptown was one of the four significant theaters on the circuit that you had to play to prove that you had made as an entertainer. The others were: The Howard in Washington DC, The Regal in Chicago, IL, and the Apollo in New York City.
Another similarity the Uptown had with the Apollo in NY was its amateur nights where local artists could compete for prizes. Daryl Hall of Hall & Oates got his start at one of the Uptown amateur nights. Hall attended Temple University, and he won a record deal at a talent show at the theater. The Uptown was also famous for booking acts at a meager price. Allegedly Woods was able to get the Supremes for a ten-day engagement for just $400. Woods was also very active in the American Civil Rights movement and often used the theater to promote it. He would hold “freedom shows” to promote civil rights at the Uptown, and the profits would be given to charities of his choice regardless of race or creed. In 1963 a ceremony was held at the Uptown by the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP to award Woods for his involvement with the Civil Rights Movement.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, by 1971, the shows were grossing $250,000 a year. Films were still shown at the Uptown, but only when no live performances were booked. In 1972 Woods stopped producing shows at the Uptown, and by 1978 the Uptown’s audience grew too small for even the minor acts, and the theater closed.
It reopened as a church in the 1980s, and they held services there until a storm damaged the roof in 1991. The Uptown Entertainment and Development Corporation (UEDC), a nonprofit whose mission is to develop revitalization projects in downtrodden neighborhoods, bought the theater in 2002. UEDC raised enough money to stabilize the roof, restore the building’s exterior and renovate the attached office space. In addition, they plan to use the funds raised from renting out the office building to restore the auditorium. UEDC estimates it will cost $8 million to repair the building entirely.
Matt Lambros PA Philadelphia Nov 23, 2021 Architecture