Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Local women tackle projects with historic implications

In the decades following the peak of the civil rights movement, the theaters that thrived on what was known as the Chitlin' Circuit went hungry.

Jonelle Procope, President and CEO at Apollo Theater Foundation, Inc. onstage at the theater on 125th street in Harlem. ( ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Jonelle Procope, President and CEO at Apollo Theater Foundation, Inc. onstage at the theater on 125th street in Harlem. ( ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)Read more

In the decades following the peak of the civil rights movement, the theaters that thrived on what was known as the Chitlin' Circuit went hungry.

Performers whose careers were forged at the African American theaters that featured the best in black entertainment moved on to new opportunities and bigger venues as racial barriers eroded.

Two of those theaters stand at different places in 2014.

The Uptown in Philadelphia is closed and boarded up, precariously waiting to complete a transition from one-time R&B palace to multipurpose arts complex. The Apollo in Harlem is open and prospering, by comparison, having already made that change.

Both theaters are relying on the skills of two women with Philadelphia roots to guide them toward the future.

Linda Richardson, a former actress, dancer, and community organizer who grew up in West Philadelphia, is president of the Uptown Entertainment Development Corporation, owner of the Uptown.

Jonelle Procope, an entertainment lawyer who grew up in Yeadon, is CEO and president of the Apollo Theater Foundation Inc., which owns the theater.

"I went to the Apollo when I was very young and saw the Motown revue," said Procope, 60. "The idea that I am working here and would be talking to Smokey Robinson amazes me."

Procope and Richardson are charged with ensuring the survival of places where the Isley Brothers shouted and James Brown got on the good foot in the days when segregation kept black audiences and performers out of mainstream venues.

To stay alive, the theaters have become nonprofit entities. They can't compete as concert venues because of their small seating capacities, Procope and Richardson said.

So they must vary their mission, create diverse programming, and rely on donations and contributions to stay alive.

Two perfect fits

The Apollo is further along on that path than the Uptown.

Procope joined the Harlem theater's board in 2000, three years before becoming CEO.

She grew up the daughter of an English teacher and hospital administrator. Her father, John L. Procope Sr., led the former Mercy-Douglass Hospital in West Philadelphia, a black institution.

Jonelle Procope attended Philadelphia High School for Girls and graduated in 1968. She spent her summers in New York with her older brother John L. Procope Jr., publisher of Harlem's Amsterdam News. It was then that she visited the Apollo.

Jonelle Procope went on to earn her law degree and worked for Viacom, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Blackground Records.

Richard Parsons, chairman of the Apollo's board and former CEO of Time Warner, asked her to run the theater during a breakfast meeting.

"I did what most women do and said, 'I can't run this organization.' " Procope said. A man wouldn't have hesitated, she said.

She then took time to talk with her husband, banker Frederick Terrell, and her women friends about the offer. All said that the job was a perfect fit. Procope, who has two sons, eventually believed it too.

For Richardson, taking over didn't involve convincing.

A community activist who has worked with groups including the People's Coalition for Peace and Justice, Richardson helped form the nonprofit whose goal is to reopen the Uptown and help restore the surrounding neighborhood.

She began those efforts in the mid-1990s while renovating five homes on the theater's 2200 block of North Broad Street as part of the Avenue of the Arts North revitalization.

"Neighbors asked if we could do something about the Uptown," Richardson said. Vandals were destroying it, she said. Richardson researched the title, discovered it was owned by a church, and the nonprofit purchased the theater for $50,000 that included legal fees and assuming the mortgage.

Richardson had long watched the Uptown's fortunes rise and fall from afar.

She grew up the daughter of a government clerk and homemaker. Born with a creative streak, the Overbrook High School graduate became a dancer and actress, joining Theater 14, a local troupe.

On the day that the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, she was inspired to become more involved in the community and left acting behind. She later earned a master's degree in science from Southern New Hampshire University.

Richardson, 67, became a community organizer with groups such as the Black United Fund. With that organization, she rehabbed deteriorating homes across the street from the Uptown and set out to turn the venue into office and programming space for youth initiatives as well as a live theater venue and catering facility.

Anything is possible

In its 80th anniversary year, the Apollo has achieved that multipurpose use. It has a performing-arts program for emerging and mid-career artists, internship programs, a theater initiative that will take a dance production based on the influence of James Brown on an international tour, and its storied Amateur Night.

The theater was closed in the late 1970s, later revived, and then was on the brink again in the early 2000s when Parsons tapped Procope.

She expanded the board, hired a new management team, recrafted the theater's mission, managed capital campaigns - all with an easy way of relating to the theater's various constituencies, Parsons said.

Richardson hopes that the Uptown is in the same position one day.

"This is my life mission now," said Richardson, a widow and mother of four.

The Uptown nonprofit had raised $3 million from city, state, federal, and private sources, but the money is nearly gone.

Contractors have made progress on the theater's tower portion, which is set to be used as office and programming space. But $7 million more is needed. The theater's lobby is cluttered with construction materials. Its 2000-seat theater is uninhabitable. The nonprofit renovation budget is down to $500,000, and there is no operating budget.

So Richardson is looking for investors and has scheduled a reception and fund-raiser on June 20, along with a public tour of the theater June 28.

"No matter who you were," Richardson said. "You could come here, feel safe, see your idols, and know that anything is possible."