The Glory Days of Groove at Uptown Theater

Local movie celebrates a legendary landmark’s extraordinary contributions to American music, fashion, and culture.

Uptown Theater, Aug 2018 (Open Streets)

Do buildings have souls? Philadelphia’s Uptown Theater has been closed since 1978, but its spirit still resonates. Rundown as it may be, the façade still looks proud and promising over North Broad, its graceful Art-Deco lines unfazed by the surrounding economic decline. Even if you missed out on the magic that happened here, it still feels like a meaningful landmark.

Uptown Theater was not just a venue; it was a vibrant hub of African-American music, culture, and social life from the 1950s thru the early 70’s. The building itself was grand, with a posh, gilded décor: velvet curtains, golden chandeliers, plush seating for 2,000. Big names staged amazing shows here, but tickets were so affordable whole families could come out to enjoy a full day of live entertainment.

Uptown was part of the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” which Beyonce will tell you is a network of safe venues where Black acts performed for Black audiences in the days of segregation. Probably the most famous theater on the Circuit is the Apollo in NYC, but Uptown was a close second. A new TV documentary on Uptown Theater highlights this incredible golden age of American music born right here in Philadelphia.

Movies, Music & Memories (Karen Smyles/WHYY) reflects on more than three decades of incredible talent fostered by Georgie Woods – “The Guy with the Goods” – a legendary local disc jockey who coordinated Uptown’s unique, ground-breaking lineups. For under $1, Uptown featured ten acts per show, where many rising superstars found their groove:

Count Basie, Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, James Brown, the Temptations, the Supremes, the Isley Brothers, the O Jays, the Jackson 5, Tina Turner, Patti LaBelle, Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Sammy Davis Jr, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Wilson Pickett, Run DMC, Hall and Oates — wait, what?

For real: Uptown was all about love, not exclusion. Every Tuesday night was “Temple Night,” where the theater hosted events for students from nearby Temple University, including Darryl Hall and John Oates who met in class and got their start performing at Uptown. But the famous names are just a fraction of the story here.

Images courtesy Charles L.Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple U. Libraries, Phila., PA

Indeed, the best part of the new Uptown movie is how it’s the most amazing reunion of local stars! So many dear personalities in old interview clips (and new). Every little music snippet is just the sweetest memory jag.

There’s a moment about halfway through when Barbara Mason, sits at a piano, and brings up the song “Yes I’m Ready”, which she wrote as a teen. Then she just starts playing it, beautifully, and when she sings the chorus it’s so lovely and heartfelt and nostalgic all at once. There are similar thrills when former musicians from Uptown’s house band riff on their instruments, reliving old memories. And don’t get me started on the dancing!

True Story: shows at Uptown usually ended with the emcee calling out, “Does anyone want to come up and dance?!” The audience would rush the stage for an impromptu dance party, with everyone flaunting their best moves and style. Traveling musicians would carry Philly trends far across the country, influencing fashion and pop culture for generations.

Uptown also played a crucial role in the Civil Rights Movement by providing a platform for African-American expression, and a community space where joy could be an act of unity and resistance. “Freedom Shows” raised money for the NAACP, and hosted discussions about Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X. In August 1963, 21 buses left from the theater for Washington DC to witness MLK’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Integration sadly was a double-edged sword for the Uptown. The end of segregation meant Black artists were free to play for white audiences at bigger and better-paying venues. Acts lower down on the marquee had nowhere to go. Crowds dwindled. Live performances continued through May 1972, and then the Uptown Theater formally closed in 1978.

Today, Uptown lives on in people’s memories, and the music in their hearts. Karen Smyles’s film celebrates a truly special time in our city’s history, when all the right elements aligned for greatness. Uptown Theater forged incredible talent and community that remains a source of local pride, and still speaks to who we are as Philadelphians.

🎦 TUNE IN:  The Uptown Theater: Movies, Music & Memories (2024; 28 min) A special by Karen Smyles for WHYY’s “Movers and Makers”. Stream free via


🙌🏾✨ Back To Life: Efforts to preserve and restore the Uptown Theater have gained momentum in recent years, with the creation of the Uptown Entertainment and Development Corporation to preserve and renovate the theater as a venue, and also a museum, tech center, and commercial leasing space.

📻🎶 Uptown Radio 98.5FM, is a key part of the UEDC’s ambitious revitalization effort, playing music, sports, comedy, news, announcements and info that boosts neighborhood pride & quality of life. They also broadcast live from local events, and provide a host of training opportunities, as well as a free platform for community outreach. @UptownRadioPhilly  🗣️🎙️

Behind the Scenes with Karen Smyles (producer/director)  

Karen Smyles is an Emmy-winning producer and director, best known for WHYY’s popular Movers and Makers series which covers fascinating people and places in greater Philadelphia. Here are some highlights from our chat about her experience filming Movies, Music & Memories.

What’s your personal history with the Uptown Theater?

I grew up in West Philly, let’s just say I was born in the 60’s. My mom and another mom from the neighborhood would take like six or seven kids on the Broad Street line, and we’d bring homemade hoagies because we couldn’t afford the food there. And you literally stayed all day.

I was maybe seven or eight years old, I didn’t really appreciate everything that was going on. But I remember sitting there, eating my hoagie, watching James Brown fall to his knees and then the cape goes over his shoulders. It’s such a fond memory.

How did you approach this story?

I actually thought the film would be more about the biggest names who started at Uptown, and follow that arc. But as I started connecting with different entertainers, it really turned into a different piece. What they shared about the theater’s history and its significance, I was so amazed.

And everyone was so warm and gracious! All those people you see interviewed in the film, they welcomed us into their homes. They were so generous with their time. They put out muffins, and coffee, and it was just so delightful. These shoots were so fun and interesting. The Uptown brought a lot of people so much joy. I think that comes through in the movie, I hope viewers respond to these great local talents looking back on good times.

How much planning was involved in the musical numbers?

None! When Barbara came to the studio for her interview, I hadn’t planned to ask her to sing, the piano wasn’t tuned for her or anything. But as we were wrapping up, she sits down at the piano and I had to ask if she might play us something. I’ll be honest, that was not supposed to happen but I’m so glad it did.

Same thing when Benita Brown started dancing. Which I just love! She started showing us moves so we asked her if we could get that on camera, she was game. We put on some James Brown, she kicked off her shoes. Totally unplanned, but such a great moment.

What are some takeaways you hope viewers discover?

You know, everyone who drives down Broad Street has seen this abandoned theater with the Uptown sign. And I feel more people should know what happened here, and how important this building was – not just for local history but music history in general. You know, during intermission it wasn’t uncommon to see James Brown walking down the street, smoking a cigarette all by himself. Diana Ross might be sitting out back, catching some fresh air. Imagine!

They were performing all day, two or three shows in a row, making hardly any money. But making history instead. It was such a different time. There was a real sense of community, with a passion for living. I don’t want us to forget these incredible stories.

June is Black Music Month! Is WHYY doing anything special for Movies, Music & Memories?

Yes! We’re working with Bridging Blocks to host a free screening on June 20th, followed by a conversation about the value that venues like Uptown bring to communities, and why that’s important today. We’ve got a great panel for that. And then there will be music and dancing, too, of course — it’s Uptown, after all.

Also, WHYY is rebroadcasting Movies, Music & Memories on Wednesday, June 19th at 7:30pm and again at 11pm.

Echoes of the Uptown: Bridging the Past, Present and Future of Philly Music

Watch, talk, and groove (in that order)! Celebrate The Uptown Theater’s monumental role in music history, American culture, and Black excellence. Screening, panel discussion, and dance mixer at WHYY. Appetizers and light refreshments will be served. Space is limited, reservations are required (free).
THURS JUN 20 (5:30 – 8:30pm)
150 N. Sixth Street |

Conversation moderated by WHYY Managing Editor, Bobbi Booker. Panelists include:

Valerie Gay – Executive Director of the city’s Office of Art, Culture and the Creative Economy
Warren Oree – Jazz Musician and Music producer for the annual West Oak Lane Jazz & Arts Festival
Alfie Pollitt – Pianist, and composer who played with The Uptown’s resident house-band
Mariama Wood – A board member of Uptown Development and Entertainment Corporation and daughter of Linda Richardson, former president of UEDC
Tiffany Bacon – Philadelphia radio personality and music historian

Thoughts? Questions? Memories to share? Please chime in below, in the Comments or email


  1. Attending shows at the Uptown were an integral part of my Philly story. Our Family stories are peppered with attending shows at the Uptown.They were a rite of passage: older Cousins took me, when I was thirteen,I took my younger cousins. Those Cousins never experienced the shows due to the closing. A shared magical experience, all for $1.25.

    • Love this so much!! What a great family tradition, what a special time to be growing up in Philly!!!!

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