When you drive along North Broad Street near Dauphin, under the din of the street traffic, you can almost hear the harmony emanating from a long-forgotten building. There stands the vacant Uptown Theater, its marquee showing a proud face that does its best to hide an empty soul.
The recent news that a corporation has raised $3 million toward restoration of that landmark represents a glowing flashlight among the rows of empty seats. If the fund-raising continues, a viable Avenue of the Arts North will be closer to reality.
Currently, the expanded Pennsylvania Convention Center anchors the southernmost part of North Broad Street. With top restaurants and the Temple campus filling in much of the in-between, this 1929 theater could give a sense of fullness to the district.
Each time I pass that marquee, I am thrown back to an era when the Uptown was a centerpiece of North Philadelphia. During several years in the late 1960s, I was a regular attendee - catching the best R&B groups from Detroit, Memphis, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia.
The crooner Dobie Gray, who died this month, sang the 1965 hit "The In Crowd," which was in my head as I headed with three friends from Germantown High School for our first visit to the Uptown. The program was hailed as the Battle of the Groups, an ongoing theme that brought together such R&B groups as the Temptations, the Miracles, the Vibrations, the Capitols, and an atypical contingent from Harrisburg known as the Magnificent Men. Like the four of us, the latter were whites in a mostly African American crowd. But coming from a largely African American high school, we had much exposure to the music and wanted to hear it in person.
The two biggest groups, the Temptations and the Miracles, had contrasting styles. The former were finger-snappers with great harmony, multiple lead singers, and choreography as precise as a Swiss timepiece. The latter were led by the legendary Smokey Robinson and displayed a musical poetry that rivaled that of Whitman or Frost.
During the next several years, I would become a virtual regular at the 2,100-seat theater. In a time when commonality among different peoples was rarer, we were bound together by the music.
Now there is an opportunity for North Broad Street to be bound together with South Broad Street, creating a three-mile-long Avenue of the Arts. The Uptown Entertainment & Development Corp., the latest entity attempting to revive the theater, wants to convert the building's upper floors for mixed use by the spring. The restoration of the auditorium, including the balcony, is estimated to require an added $7 million.
Here's hoping the Philadelphia community will step up to do for the Uptown what others did for the similarly iconic Apollo Theater in New York. It would be a fitting tribute to those who once graced its stage.