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The Uptown Theater and Philly Pops are in talks to renovate the North Broad landmark

The 1929 theater would be transformed.

The exterior of the Uptown Theater in North Philadelphia.
The exterior of the Uptown Theater in North Philadelphia.Read moreMonica Herndon / Staff Photographer

The Uptown Theater and Philly Pops are taking first steps toward a collaboration that would revive the old art deco theater, shift the Pops’ center of gravity north of Center City, and turn the storied but long-dormant theater into a hub for entertainment, education, and community on North Broad Street.

Key details remain to be worked out, including identifying a developer for restoration of the theater. But as currently envisioned, the Pops would move some of its smaller-ensemble jazz and swing performances to the Uptown and establish its offices, education, rehearsal, and community engagement activities in the hall and adjacent spaces.

“We are in early stages, but believe we share a vision for the theater space with UEDC [Uptown Entertainment & Development Corp.] that will expand our organization’s engagement activities in the city that we are so proud to serve,” said Karen Corbin, the Pops’ chief operating officer, in a written statement provided in response to questions.

The deal would realize a long-held dream for stewards of the Uptown, which was once a thriving Philadelphia answer to the Apollo Theater in New York. The UEDC, led by civic leader Linda Richardson until her death in 2020, partially renovated the facility, which includes a main theater and office space above, but more work is needed.

Attempts to reach UEDC representatives were not successful.

A revived Uptown is being seen as an anchor for Black culture and residents of North Philadelphia. Boosters of that part of the city watched the redevelopment of South Broad Street as the Avenue of the Arts in the 1990s and 2000s while revitalization of the Avenue of the Arts north of City Hall lagged.

The difference in density and redevelopment between the two stretches has diminished somewhat with the opening of new facilities at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Met Philadelphia. Philadelphia Ballet recently announced plans to expand its North Broad Street dance center. New residential projects, restaurants, and grocery stores have cropped up on North Broad in recent years.

For the Pops, a new base in North Philadelphia would bring it close to areas where many of its educational programs are focused.

“This is the community where we have become increasingly active over the past decade,” Corbin said in the statement. “It’s particularly exciting to participate in meeting the original promise of the Avenue of the Arts north of City Hall. There we would join Temple University, the Ballet and Live Nation’s the Met Philadelphia in a growing, vibrant part of the City’s landscape.”

The Pops would keep full-orchestra concerts like its annual Christmas show in Verizon Hall and other venues, and would move the small-ensemble jazz presentations to a renovated Uptown in future seasons.

The theater, on Broad near Dauphin Street, opened in 1929 primarily as a venue for movies, and in the 1950s became a stop on the “chitlin’ circuit,” booking traveling gospel and rhythm-and-blues performers and acts geared toward a Black audience. Georgie Woods, the famed radio broadcaster, music promoter, and civil rights activist, produced shows in the 2,000-seat hall, and artists such as the Supremes and Redd Foxx performed there.

The Pops’ interest in the Uptown reflects in part changing demographics. The group’s market research shows that its base of listeners for traditional Pops shows is shrinking. In recent years it has developed and marketed distinct “mini-brands” — rock, jazz, and swing, as well as its traditional Broadway and holiday-themed concerts — each with a different (though somewhat overlapping) audience.

The artistic staff has changed with the programming. In 2019 the Pops hired Terell Stafford as artistic director for jazz. The Temple University professor also oversees the Pops’ educational activities. Byron Stripling was brought on in May as principal guest conductor. David Charles Abell was named principal conductor and music director in 2020.

“Most people know the Pops as a Center City- and suburban-connected mainstream organization, and some people still tie it to the music [longtime artistic director] Peter Nero was playing,” said Corbin in a previous interview. “But it has evolved.”