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Effort to revive Uptown Theater is on track

Along the west side of Broad Street, on a once-fabled block, the neon beer signs lighting the storefront deli window draw regular traffic.

The Uptown Theater on North Broad Street, photographed on Dec. 5, 2011. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
The Uptown Theater on North Broad Street, photographed on Dec. 5, 2011. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)Read more

Along the west side of Broad Street, on a once-fabled block, the neon beer signs lighting the storefront deli window draw regular traffic.

The shuttered Uptown Theater next door, where James Brown once shimmied, Diana Ross cooed, and live bands battled, also, finally, shows signs of life: construction fence, hard-hatted workers, squealing power tools.

And come Christmas Eve, there is hope the grand marquee, dark for decades, will shine again.

"It's very missed," said John Wallace, 56, staring at the theater one afternoon on his way home from work. He was once a regular. "If it was still around, it would have kept a lot of youngsters out of a lot of stuff, like it did me."

The theater's latest owner, the Uptown Entertainment & Development Corp., has raised $3 million in three years, in a bad economy, to revive the historic venue. The first phase, which began in August and is expected to be completed in the spring, will convert the upper floors into office space, retail stores, and a center for youth arts and education programs.

The price tag to restore the 2,100-seat auditorium and balcony, where audiences once clapped and swayed in their Sunday best, is an additional $7 million.

"We're hoping to complete the project in 2013," said Linda Richardson, Uptown Entertainment's executive director. She acknowledged that securing first-phase funding - a collection of city and state money, a federal grant, and the bulk from private donations - was "quite a challenge."

For phase two, "we want to reach out to the entertainment community," Richardson said, "people who actually had their starts there," from fledgling blues singers in the '50s to early hip-hop artists of the '80s.

In its time, the Uptown Theater, built in 1929, has been a movie theater, vaudeville house, rhythm-and-blues venue, nightclub, and church. In its heyday, it was one of the few stages in the country that courted black audiences.

"That place was smokin'," said Wallace, a former Marine and drug rehab counselor who endured the Uptown's long lines in his silk threads and shiny president shoes. "Oh, man."

Aretha Franklin. Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. The Mad Lads. Ray Charles. The Mighty O'Jays. The Supremes. Jackie Wilson.

"You name it," Wallace said, "anybody who was somebody played here. To see it go down, it hurts. It hurts the block."

A few passersby, some familiar faces, agreed.

"I'm dying to see it open again," said a former drummer named Larry, 59. He played the Uptown with the soul trio the Intrigues in his teens. "But I don't know. People tried before."

Past efforts by previous owners to restore the venue, left vacant in the late 1970s, have sputtered and died.

In 1983, the city and federal government investigated the New Uptown Theater & Entertainment Center and the $3 million it received in mostly public money to renovate the theater. The building eventually ended up on the auction block, and was sold again. Uptown Entertainment & Development Corp. bought it in 2002.

In recent years, the old theater has been marred by vandals, graffiti, trash, and the stench of urine. Still, the day the King of Pop died, a handful of mourners gathered outside and played his music into the night. Michael Jackson had once performed there with his four brothers.

Like the Uptown, the surrounding North Philadelphia neighborhood has flourished and fallen.

There are longtime African American residents, some working-class, some barely getting by, for whom the Uptown is still fresh. And with the encroaching flags of Temple University, there are backpacked college students who remember the Uptown only as abandoned.

This three-mile stretch of Broad Street, from City Hall to Glenwood Avenue, is known as the Avenue of the Arts North. Along the 2200 block, where the Uptown sits, are signs of investment: a clothing boutique, cellphone store, day-care center, dance studio, barbershop. And where "Temple wasn't even here," say 10 years ago, Richardson noted, "now there's dorms in the next block."

"But at the same time," she said, "there are residents and young people who need opportunities for employment."

Yet even the goal of lighting the marquee from Christmas Eve to New Year's Day presents a challenge. So far, Uptown Entertainment has raised only half of the $5,000 needed.

If the campaign is successful, donor names will be listed outside the theater.

Richardson sees the lighting as a simple yet strong symbol. A guiding beacon.

She envisions the Uptown packed once again through jazz and neo-soul performances, independent and first-run films, and performing arts programs. And Uptown Entertainment's using the theater to expand its work.

"It's the linchpin of the avenue," Richardson said, "the northern anchor."