North Philly’s Uptown Theater wants to reinvent itself as a hub for arts and tech

You can check out the progress at Philly Free Streets.

North Philly's historic Uptown Theatre

North Philly's historic Uptown Theatre

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn
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Updated 8:55 a.m.

During Philly Free Streets on Saturday, people will get a chance to visit a theater where Michael Jackson once played basketball out back.

Yes, that Michael Jackson.

Longtime North Philly resident Kay Thompson, who’s now 85 years old, swears by it.

Thompson has been block captain of the 2200 block of Carlisle Street for three decades. Her home stands in the shadow of the historic, 2,100-seat Philadelphia Uptown Theater. Currently dark and shuttered, it was once a powerhouse venue that showed movies and welcomed famous jazz and R&B musicians.

It first opened in 1929, and in its time hosted musicians like Patti LaBelle, Hall & Oates and the Isley Brothers. Among them was Michael Jackson, who performed there several times in the 1960s and ’70s.

When entertainers came to the theater, Thompson said, they parked their tour buses in the back — right on her block. She often cooked them dinner.

And when Michael Jackson came by, he offered to meet Thompson’s children.

“My kids were small then,” she said. “They played basketball with him right outside the theater.”

But when larger venues started popping up in Center City and Atlantic City in the 1980s, the Uptown had trouble getting the same caliber of entertainers to perform in North Philly. Business slowed, and eventually the theater fell into a state of disrepair.

Since it closed to performers, the Uptown Theatre has fallen into a state of disrepair.

Since it closed to performers, the Uptown Theater has fallen into a state of disrepair.

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

It went through a few changes in ownership, all the while remaining inactive and acquiring graffiti on the interior and exterior. It still sits vacant on North Broad near Dauphin Street.

“It would be nice if we could get it up and running,” Thompson added. “I know we can’t bring back the old days, but we could make it useful.”

Welcoming visitors again

As it turns out, Thompson’s dream might not be so unrealistic.

There’s an entire nonprofit devoted to making it happen. The Uptown Entertainment & Development Corporation was founded in 1995 with the goal of redeveloping and revitalizing the North Philly theater.

Construction has come so far on the venue that it can finally be opened up to the public — at least partially. On Aug. 11, the third annual Philly Free Streets will clear eight miles of vehicular traffic on North Broad Street to make room for pedestrians and cyclists.

The Uptown Theater will offer two tours, at 10 a.m. and 11 a.m., for $10 a pop. (That is, unless you can show ID that proves you’re a North Philly resident. Then you can get in for free.)

The Uptown Theatre, on North Broad near Dauphin

The Uptown Theater, on North Broad near Dauphin

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

“It is a construction site, so we’re only going to be taking people to the areas that are safe and don’t have equipment,” clarified Uptown President and CEO Linda Richardson. The lobby and the auditorium are good to go, while the balcony is totally off limits.

Up and running by 2020

It took about $4 million for the Uptown to make it this far.

Richardson spent the last 15 years fundraising, drawing money from sources like the City of Philadelphia and the National Preservation Council. The money was enough to get new electricity and plumbing in the building, to stabilize the structure and repair the roof — which was previously at risk of collapsing.

“As a small, community-based organization, we have managed to keep a building intact, where other venues in the city have not been able to do that,” Richardson said. “We want to be able to preserve that history.”

As far as construction goes, Richardson needs $10 million total to finish the job. She’s got a vision for the future of the Uptown: a brand new technology center for the entire North Philadelphia community.

In the year 2020, she hopes the new Uptown will include:

  • A pop-up park at the entrance
  • A renovated theater
  • A small gallery space
  • A dinner theater
  • Commercial office space
  • Lofts to be used as studios for local artists
  • A black music museum
  • A studio to host the existing North Philly FM radio station, WJYN 98.5
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Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

To get all that done, Richardson will need to rake in a ton more money. She’s already selling bricks, stars, plaques and room-naming rights for the future Uptown, which she hopes will bring in some cash. And that’s not all.

“We want to find a partner who can run the Uptown as a professional venue,” Richardson said, “and we’ll use the resources to be able to further our neighborhood development goals.”

Back in May, another historic theater on North Broad announced its own partnership. Live Nation bought out the Metropolitan Opera House for $56 million, planning to turn it into a major concert venue.

Would Richardson consider a partnership like that? “We would consider anyone, if they continue the vision we have.”

And for Thompson — who remembers the Uptown fondly — any use of the building would be better than its current vacancy.

“To me, it’s a historical building,” Thompson said. “Back in the ’70s when I moved here, we had a movie theater that did live shows. Young people had some place to go on Saturday nights, to hang out, watch a show, get dressed up.”

“It was a good place for the neighborhood,” she said, “and it’s just standing there now, like a white elephant.”