WHYY-TV remembers the heyday of the Uptown Theater

From Philly and the Pa. suburbs to South Jersey and Delaware, what would you like WHYY News to cover? Let us know!

Everybody, of a certain age, seems to have a story about the Uptown Theater.

Now empty and dilapidated, the Uptown Theater on North Broad in Philadelphia was once a celebrated performance venue for top-tier Black artists in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, a major stop on the so-called “Chitlin’ Circuit” of performance venues across the country that attracted people like James Brown, Ray Charles and Miles Davis. The theater also became the launching pad for white soul acts such as Hall and Oates and the Harrisburg band The Magnificent Men.

A  new television documentary produced by WHYY, Inc. revisits the theater’s glory days  as a major presenter of R&B, soul, gospel and jazz with fans, artists, DJs and historians.“The Uptown Theater: Movies, Music, and Memories,” is a  half-hour program that also traces the history of the building itself, which was designed as a destination movie palace in a lushly ornate art-deco style.

Olivia Riley remembers going to see the Isley Brothers in the 1960s, who literally rocked the house.

“Every time they sang ‘Shout,’ the audience threw their hands up, jumped up and down,” Riley said. “It was like the building was jumping up and down.”

The film’s producer and director, Karen Smyles, recalled as a young girl getting pulled across town from West Philadelphia to the Uptown by her older sister.

“I was probably seven or eight and my sister was in her teens, but I have very vivid memories of seeing people like James Brown and The Supremes and The Four Tops,” Smyles said. “I always had this in the back of my mind to do something. There had been some small things, but I couldn’t believe that no one had done anything about the history of the Uptown.”

“I know it’s just a matter of tiiiime,’” Marilyn Kai Jewett spontaneously sings in the film. She was a regular audience member at the Uptown, remembering the 1967 Magnificent Men hit, “Peace of Mind.”

“Oh, yeah, we loved that,” she said.

  • February 12, 2024
  • Articles,
  • This post was written by