Philadelphia’s Uptown Theater, under renovations, will follow a path upon opening which would almost ensure that it doesn’t mirror the Howard Theater in Washington D.C.
In the present and in the past, the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia and the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C. have shared similar narratives. In the 1960’s, both ornate theaters were a part of the Chitlin Circuit, a network of venues that were, during segregation, safe for African-American entertainers to perform at. In 1968, when riots in black neighborhoods occurred in various American cities, both theaters were located in the vicinity of the lawlessness. By the 1980s, the Uptown and the Howard, both of which closed their doors in the 1970s, were mere shells of their former selves, with the Philadelphia venue opening its doors briefly and unsuccessfully as the Nu-Tec Uptown.
The 21st Century continued the pattern of mirroring narratives for the two theaters: renovation efforts were underway and promises of an educational and museum component were made. But in 2012, the theaters took on their own separate storylines: the Howard, outfitted with black-walnut walls and two jumbo screens, was open to the public while the Uptown, whose interior had crumbled, remained boarded up.
To open, the Uptown Theater needs about $10-12 million in renovations – the Howard Theater required $29 million in renovations, $12 of which was provided by D.C. taxpayers. The Howard Theater, which I visited for a concert in 2014, had a strong opening in 2012 and was a solid business for a bit. But circumstances soon took a turn for the worse.
According to a Washington Post article published today, the theater is struggling to sell tickets; pay its rent and fill the stage with the sort of high-profile acts that accompanied its opening day. Additionally, the venue owes the District hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes and the museum and educational component never materialized. All those problems made me think: Could the Uptown Theater offer a similar narrative when it finally opens?
To get an answer, I reached out to Ms. Linda Richardson, the Executive Director of the Uptown Entertainment and Development Corporation, the nonprofit overseeing the renovations of the nearly 100-year-old theater in North Philadelphia.
Ms. Richardson, who I interviewed last month about the theater’s renovations when guest hosting ‘The Nick Taliaferro Show’ on Philadelphia black talk radio station 900am-WURD, said the Uptown’s educational component, unlike that of the Howard’s, existed alongside renovation efforts; has a track record of engagement; and is growing at such a rate that housing it in the theater is a must. And on the matter of taxes, the Howard Theater was leased to a developer who formed a nonprofit to oversee the renovation and repay the debt, whereas the Uptown Theater was purchased by a nonprofit with tax-exempt status to develop the property.
“We’re building the theater, but we won’t run it. We’re looking for a company to run the business,” Ms. Richardson told Techbook Online this afternoon via a phone interview.
Blue Note Entertainment Group of New York was tapped to promote the Howard. During the Howard’s construction, competing venues opened, and have affected attendance. In Philadelphia are several world-class performance venues, including Center City’s the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, where I recently moderated a celebrity panel, and the Liacoura Center on Temple University’s campus, located just blocks from the Uptown Theater. Given the stiff competition, what will be the Uptown’s unique value proposition to the market?
“The sound,” answered Ms. Richardson, pointing out that the world-class acoustics which made the Uptown Theater famous is very much prevalent today. “The Liacoura Center is a gym, which means acts will have to spend a lot of money on sound.”
And while the theater will aim to attract high-profile acts, a goal of the renovation is to provide music, entertainment and space to those communities who don’t often access the arts or Center City venues. Temple University students who live around the theater and the many homeowners in the area, particularly the seniors, will be a built-in audience for the Uptown, Ms. Richardson predicts.
In Washington D.C. some observers of the Howard’s troubles are beginning to imagine that the legendary venue could cease to exist, a narrative which neither Ms. Richardson nor I hope ever mirrors itself in Philadelphia about the Uptown.
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