The last decade has produced a gradual uptick in real estate development along North Broad Street, most notably in the restoration of the Divine Lorraine and the recent transformation of the Metropolitan Opera House. The flurry of real estate investment on North Broad along with significant development in Francisville, Fairmount, and in and around Temple University’s campus is a welcome sign for this once rich boulevard that became a symbol of disinvestment and urban poverty. However, long-term residents and activists who have struggled to reenergize North Philadelphia through community-based organizations are concerned about widespread displacement, while legacy problems still go largely unaddressed. The owners of The Met Philadelphia have made an effort to recruit local residents through job fairs. In a welcoming sign, the venue also promotes the use of public transportation and recommends restaurants in the vicinity to guests. The likelihood that the average concert-goer lives in North Philly is growing but still low, and most exit the neighborhood after their entertainment needs are met.
Substantive social change is vital to reviving North Broad Street, especially the area around and above Temple University. A community isn’t merely defined by its geographic boundaries. It develops out of shared experiences and goals. Organizations like The North Broad Renaissance and the Uptown Entertainment and Development Corporation, for example, have been working to reverse divestment along the commercial corridor and make North Broad a vibrant boulevard again. Plans for the Uptown envision a restored performance venue and a hub for community activity for the legendary theater. The UEDC participates in citywide events like last summer’s Free Philly Walks, sponsors youth programs and job training, and is planning a museum dedicated to the history of Black music. The concept of providing more than just entertainment at the Uptown keeps with the original community function of neighborhood movie theaters across the country during the middle of the 20th century. The intensive life provides a model for redevelopment today.
A Night Out in the Neighborhood
In the 1930s, the sign on the roof of the Uptown Theater could be seen for blocks. It was in the shape of a “V,” and the point directed east across North Broad Street at a neighborhood that included Fotterall Square, St. Edward the Confessor Parish, and the John F. Hartranft School. You could see it from the tracks of the Philadelphia, Germantown, and Norristown Railway and from the row houses on the other side of those tracks on East York, Arizona, and Dakota Streets. The Uptown sign announced escape from the anxieties of the Great Depression. During World War II it promised images of heroes, survivors, and hope that loved ones would soon return.
The broad, terra-cotta facade announced that this was more than just a boxy room with a projector in it. The carpets were still soft, the seat backs not yet worn out, the stained glass windows that decorated the walls still vibrant. The Art Deco combinations of gold and sleek black made it modern and sophisticated. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Uptown, which seated just over 2,100 customers, was the theater of choice for those in North Philadelphia who wanted to see a movie in its first run in a classy environment with a well-behaved audience and clean rest rooms. You could take your date to Center City, but why pay for bus or trolley fare and spend more money at the Aldine, Stanley, or the Fox when the Uptown, with its plush carpet and captivating murals, cost only 26 cents. If you stayed in the neighborhood you could afford a hamburger after the movie and do a little window shopping along Germantown Avenue.
But the Uptown was only one part of the moviegoer’s life in the neighborhood during the 1930s and 1940s. From the Broad Street Subway stop at Susquehanna-Dauphin, which had a set of stairs that took you directly into the lobby of the Uptown to avoid bad weather, there were seven other theaters within reasonable walking distance. Most had been built around 1910 and renovated in the 1920s. They operated without much fanfare, and often with very slim profits, for the next two decades without changing much. These theaters weren’t the most glamorous or exotic, but thousands of people spent their afternoons or evenings there, and the buildings became a part of their shared existence as North Philadelphians.
This was the pattern in most American cities. The movie palaces located in downtown areas were owned and operated by the major studios: Paramount, MGM, 20th Century Fox, RKO, or Warner Bros. They were also the most luxurious theaters. They charged the highest prices and played new films as soon as they were released. First-run picture houses were often furnished with antiques, decorated with gold leaf, and staffed by uniformed ushers who shuffled as many as 2,000 customers to their seats during peak showings. The goal of the movie studios was to get as many people as possible into the first-run theaters every week.
But, if moviegoers were willing to be patient, that brand new movie would be playing in the neighborhoods within a few weeks. Most neighborhoods had at least one large-capacity theater like the Uptown, which would show movies in its second run. A film would then make its slow journey from second-run to third-run and so on. A movie missed at the Uptown or the Keystone at Broad Street and Lehigh Avenue would eventually reappear on Germantown Avenue at the Diamond, the Viola or the Avenue. Prints were likely scratched and choppy by the time they landed at the Regis on Cumberland Street or the Bluebird directly across from the Uptown, but they still provided audiences with adventure, romance, escape, and an opportunity for a little sleep which was hard to get at home where work never really ceased.
By the time the Uptown opened in 1929, this section of North Philadelphia was, like most neighborhoods in the city, almost entirely self contained. Between 16th Street and Germantown Avenue, with Columbia (now Cecil B. Moore) Avenue to the south and Lehigh Avenue to the north, you could go to work or school, buy groceries, clothes, furniture, and appliances, do your banking, attend religious services, see your doctor or dentist, go rollerskating or bowling, and see a professional baseball game. Across the street from the Uptown, the Bluebird was flanked by Wright’s Appliances and Tolson’s Tailor Shop. On the corner, the Republic Cafe advertised Chop Suey. Most people did their grocery shopping as they walked home from work, stopping at the bakery, the meat market, the produce stand, and maybe even the American Pretzel Company.
Even during the Great Depression most of the men in the neighborhood could find work, although much of it may have been part-time at the lumber yard, the Diamond Ice Company, or the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company repair shops. Women worked at the Krumm noodle factory or at Whitman’s Confectionery. There were florists, pharmacies, tool manufacturers, masonry companies, exterminators, beauty salons, and several dozen cigar shops and corner groceries. You could smell French’s Spice Company blocks away and Ernst & Ehrler Sauerkraut fermenting cabbage.
While most of those documented in the census records were Irish and Italian, there are some Greek, Hungarian, and Russian names. The only Chinese couple in the vicinity ran a restaurant. The African American residents were concentrated in small pockets west of Broad on North 16th Street. Their occupations were diverse: packer at a bakery, bartender, construction worker, and drugstore clerk. There were musicians, trolley foremen, and color mixers in a wallpaper plant. Many came from North and South Carolina. Others were from Virginia, Maryland, and New Jersey.
See You at the Cinema
Most of the North Philadelphia’s remaining picture houses are scattered among the businesses and shops because they were constructed during the second wave of theaters building when investors were convinced that movies were a permanent fixture in everyday life. Philadelphia had been a leader in establishing the country’s first picture houses, known then as “nickelodeons,” which were often merely renovated or refitted stores—one storefront wide, one block deep, enough for a few hundred seats, and a makeshift projection booth. Siegmund Lubin, a pioneer both as a filmmaker and as a film exhibitor, is credited with developing one of the earliest chains of movie theaters. In North Philadelphia, Germantown Avenue was crowded with the Electric, the Ideal, the Auditorium, the Casino, and the Aurora. All opened before 1911. In the 1910s, most of these early buildings were either renovated and adapted for showing movies (with raked floors, for instance, and a separate projection booth), or were demolished to make way for purpose-built “motion picture parlors,” as they were identified on the construction permits. Most came complete with ticket booths and public rest rooms, which became necessary as feature films of anywhere from 50 minutes to almost two hours were replacing 20-minute “two-reelers.” In this period, the Susquehanna, the Bluebird, and the Regis all opened in a neighborhood that was already a busy mix of businesses, shops, manufacturers, and row houses. Other nearby theaters included the Viola, the Keystone, the Avenue, and the Diamond.
Almost everyone went to the movies. Film historians calculate that in the early 1930s, with the U.S. population roughly 130 million, attendance at movie theaters was around 80 million tickets sold weekly. Most theaters changed their programs two or three times a week. Many offered continuous showings so there was always something to see. Often it didn’t matter which particular movie was playing. The pleasure was in the activity of “going to” the movies, i.e., getting out of the house, meeting friends, and escaping the realities of the Great Depression. Boys spent their paper route earnings on weekend double features. Girls baby-sat on Friday nights or washed the marble steps of their parent’s row houses on Saturday mornings to earn their movie money.
In the heady days of the late 1920s the Uptown was the last major theater built in North Philadelphia. Exhibitors found that they had overestimated how many movie seats they could actually fill, even before the stock market crash of 1929, and the transition to sound had complicated the movie theater business. On Market Street in Center City, the grand and breathtaking Mastbaum Theater opened in 1929. The 4,000-seat movie palace drew viewers who would normally go to the other extravagant theaters, leaving the Stanley, the Stanton, and the Boyd half-filled. More often than not, especially after the first buzz of excitement over the lavish interior and 76-piece pit orchestra waned, the Mastbaum closed because it was so expensive to maintain.
The picture houses in North Philadelphia managed to survive the Great Depression with only sporadic closures. Those occurred most often in the summer when professional sports provided stiff competition. Baker Bowl and Shibe Park were both within walking distance. Brief trends like miniature golf could affect attendance. Philadelphians were also well into the habit of “going down the shore” for day trips and summer vacations, so the North Philly theater managers knew there would be some drop in box office in July and August. But there were inventive efforts to boost attendance. “Premiums” or give-aways were popular during the early 1930s. In the humid, summer evenings, when you knew that the Viola or the Regis would be hot and stifling, it might be worth going to a movie to pick up a complimentary serving dish or fancy kitchen utensil to add to your collection. In some households a free toaster became a prized possession, even if it did shoot sparks more often than it toasted bread.
Almost all of the theaters made continuing efforts to be good neighbors as they competed with each other for customers. The Keystone, the second largest theater in the area with over 1,800 seats, probably did more than any other local movie house to earn the loyalty of schools, churches, and local businesses. It opened in 1911 and offered a combination of films and vaudeville. By the 1930s, vaudeville had given way to community programming of varying kinds, including dance contests where couples from adjoining neighborhoods competed against each other. The Keystone also had a wide balcony that the ushers didn’t always venture into where it was possible to prop open the fire escape door on occasion to let friends sneak in.
A smaller theater like the Viola, with only 500 seats, had to work a bit harder to maintain its loyal customers. A manager would arrange with St. Edward’s School to provide a week’s pass for the “student of the month.” Winning a spelling bee at the school could also earn you a free movie at the Viola. Customers appreciated that it was always clean–even the rest rooms–and that the staff were well trained. In contrast, the Regis, which was actually newer than the Bluebird and the Keystone, became known as “The Dump” almost as soon as it was built. The Regis was the last place you could see a movie before it was returned to the studio for good. Most counted on its low prices and double features to appeal to kids who ended the week with less pocket money than they expected. On the edges of North Philadelphia, the Diamond and the Susquehanna (which, under new management, became the Senate in the late 1930s) were convenient places to meet with friends who lived in nearby neighborhoods, but neither became as popular as the small Bluebird or the Viola. The Avenue, which installed air conditioning in the early 1940s, was a functional movie house, but rather spare and bland. It was a good place to see a movie that you liked a second time, but was generally not a popular hang out.
The Last Picture Show
World War II changed the tone and meaning of almost everything. Men were shipped overseas, and women took their place in the factories. In the evenings after baseball, boys would hang out on someone’s front steps and talk about the movies. Discussing combat films was a safe way to begin thinking seriously about what the war would bring. Older boys had already enlisted. When boys reached their junior year of high school and had earned a certain number of credits they were given the option to graduate early and enlist. The movies seemed more serious than they had before. Even a lightweight film like Navy Blue and Gold from 1937 offered lessons about loyalty, friendship, and following one’s own conscience.
With so many young men in the military, the neighborhood felt out-of-balance. For some, going to the movies now meant going primarily for the newsreels. But you could also find humor in MGM’s depiction of family life in the Andy Hardy series or indulge in nostalgia for “the good old days” in films like Meet Me in St. Louis. On the screens, soldiers, sailors, marines–characters who represented the immigrant melting pot that was the United States–survived danger, did their duty, and returned home to their families. North Philadelphia moviegoers, just like folks all over the country, wanted to be comforted and in many ways they found that in their local theaters.
During World War II the major studios were forced to sell most of their theaters. What had been a community asset became an investor’s liability. Not many entrepreneurs lined up to purchase 2,000-seat movie houses. Even worse, as returning vets moved to newly-developed suburbs and settled down to marry and have kids, going to the movies became an event rather than a routine. Working-class neighborhoods like North Philadelphia were hit hard by the closing of factories and the decrease in manufacturing jobs. As white residents left for New Jersey and the Northeast, minorities moved in. The movie houses adapted, briefly reviving vaudeville and cheap double features. The Diamond became a Spanish-language film venue for a period of time. But the theaters fought a losing battle, because movies simply were not as socially important to people as they had once been. Most North Philadelphians barely noticed when, one by one, their local theaters closed for good.
The Boyd on Chestnut Street was the last intact movie palace in Center City before it was demolished in 2015. Small neighborhood houses like the Regis and the Bluebird are now churches. The Uptown enjoyed a second life beginning in the 1960s as a legendary music venue for popular Black artists like James Brown, the Supremes, the Isley Brothers, Patti LaBelle, and Stevie Wonder among many others.
The Uptown shuttered its doors in the late 1970s, unable to compete with newer, more modern venues. Its closure coincided with a grave period of municipal neglect, divestment, redlining, and the crack epidemic. For many, North Philadelphia became merely a place that you drove through to get to or from Center City. However, the accelerating rate of reinvestment along North Broad Street today makes the return of the Uptown seem like a possibility. The effort is not necessarily centered on bringing back movies or musicians per se, but about helping to reconnect the surrounding community and make “going to the Uptown” seem as natural as during its heyday.