The sky was gray and it felt like rain as my car made a left onto Ludlow. I had imagined the next few moments would be no big deal. Purely academic. But I was too late. And it was in fact emotional.
A lightning bolt that for nearly a century had flashed the letters T-O-W-E-R in red block letters high above the box office of Upper Darby’s Tower Theater was gone. Picked apart by two enormous cranes that looked like mercenary robots on a mission of destruction against mushy-hearted, ant-size humans.
My heart skipped.
I pulled into a loading zone at 69th and Ludlow Streets on Tuesday. For nearly 20 years as a kid on this block near the West Philly border, I had stared at the Tower sign from the front door of my dad’s old sandwich shop. But now, all that was left of it was a metal lattice, the crumbling base that had cradled its soaring radio tower for nearly a century. It had become structurally unstable.
Gone is a beacon that declared to rockers and out-of-towners: This weird place called Upper Darby, this neither-here-nor-there suburb of Philly, was where you belonged tonight, in a beat-up old shopping district that had a magic that would never die as long as the Tower and its tower could just stay lit.
“They took down the last ‘R,’" a police officer standing across the street said after I approached about noon.
“When?" I asked with more panic than I might have expected of myself.
“About 20 minutes ago,” he said.
We stared at the white marquee. I noticed a gash on it. That’s from tractor trailers not quite clearing the turn off 69th, the other officer said.
As a kid of rural immigrants, I had found that marquee to be baffling, if also beckoning — until I got old enough to know better.
My dad opened Ariston Deli about two decades after 69th Street’s heyday. The avenue was once so upper-crust that nationally televised shows were beamed from there. It used to have department stores and boutiques so exclusive they were said to exist nowhere other than in Manhattan or Florida.
From the deli counter, I dieted on my father’s heavy Greek accent and whatever pop music was coming through then-98.1 WCAU-FM. That meant Sheena Easton and Rick Springfield. The Tower marquee, though, was for eclectic or hard-rock acts.
In other words, it read like hieroglyphics to my fifth-grade self in the 1980s.
“Blue Oyster Cult” I remember once seeing, and thinking, Whaat? I’m pretty sure I also remember feeling unsettled about the words Black Sabbath, and wondering if Elvis Costello was a peculiar side act out of Memphis.
Night after night, in a ritual that continues today (the Tower, despite losing its sign, is not closing), giant trucks and buses would be parked outside the enduring temple to the town’s once-Hollywood status. The marquee would be lit and flashing. And by sundown, people from somewhere else would be coming to this blue-collar zone for blue-chip music.
And all would be beckoned by the sign.
It poked up pretty high. You could see it while rolling into the terminus of the Market-Frankford El at 69th. For decades, this was where you had to go to watch a good act in a mid-size venue, because until only a few years ago, before The Fillmore and The Met, it was it.
My first show, I think, was Ned’s Atomic Dustbin — a college escapade that involved a whole lot of flinging of hair as pseudo-punk, head-banging beats flowed from onstage. Our ringleader, who had sold us on the British act, was a Little Flower grad from Hunting Park, Christine Qualtieri.
She was a kid from Eighth and Cayuga who, when I called her Tuesday morning, had already heard about the Tower sign coming down — and was mourning.
“I just want to know," I asked Chris, “are Upper Darby types the only people who care that this sign is gone?”
If anyone could answer that question credibly, it was Chris. This was a music wingnut back in college. Daughter of a longtime SEPTA mechanic and Little Flower cafeteria worker with zero pretense. She is not the type to get too sentimental — unless it has to do with the Phillies or Frank Sinatra.
“No,” Chris said.
She said the first time she saw the sign, getting off the El and going across the pedestrian bridge over 69th, it was as exciting as when a kid first goes to Citizens Bank Park without parents. She spotted it as she walked across that bridge.
“The very few times I was allowed to take the El,” she said, it was to see Echo and the Bunnymen in high school. “Going over that bridge and seeing that sign was so cool.”
She and I agreed that life goes on, as did a man I saw taking a picture of the Tower while on break from his job Tuesday.
“I just remember seeing it as a kid all the time,” said 58-year-old Robert Feldman, a Yeadon native. “This is a piece of history here.”
Yep. And now, it’s history.