Preservation

Old Movie Palace Seeks the Spotlight Once Again

August 10, 2022 | by Keshler Thibert

The Logan Theater at 4732 N. Broad Street opened in 1923 and was vacated by its last owner in 2005. Director and playwright Nolbert Brown Jr. aims to reopen the old movie palace as a multi-use entertainment venue akin to the Apollo Theater in Harlem. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Much of my teenage years were spent at the intersection of Broad and Wyoming. That time was never a full day of any specific activity, but it did add up. 10 to 20 minutes here and there or longer if I engaged in a conversation or simply took a minute to sit and look around.

When my family moved to the area in the mid-1990s the landscape was naturally different. A used car lot was once on the west side of Broad Street, while a Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Budget Video occupied the northeast corner. For as long as I have lived in the area, The Way of the Cross Church has been the only constant place in operation.

Today, you might spot a pair of Mormons leaving their headquarters. Sid Booker’s Shrimp Corner is usually busy serving its famous baskets of fried seafood. During the weekday parents drop off and pick up their children at Cooke Elementary. On Sundays, the Cambodian Evangelical Church opens its doors and parishioners gather. Sometimes they have a small cook-out and I enjoy those moments for the delicious, lingering smells. It’s a mostly sleepy block of North Philadelphia, so when something changes everyone notices, like an ambitious plan to open a music venue in the old movie theater at 4732 N. Broad Street.

Logan’s Lost Movie Palace

The Logan Theater upon opening in 1923. | Photo courtesy of The Athenaeum of Philadelphia

The Logan Theater was built in 1924 for the Stanley Company of America and designed by architectural firm Hoffman & Henon. The 1,894-seat theater originally screened silent films. Its first feature was The Common Law starring Corinne Griffith. The film was accompanied by a live orchestra, known as The Loganians, that included a Kimball pipe organ. Logan Theater would continue in this fashion until making the switch to the more popular sound film format in the 1940s.

Interior architectural details included depictions of mythological creatures and a fresco of a ship in the lobby. A ballroom was on the second floor, known as the Waltz Studio, which featured live performances that had audiences reveling until the late hours.

The auditorium of the Logan Theater in 1923. | Photo courtesy of The Athenaeum of Philadelphia

The theater remained in operation until January 30, 1973 when it featured its last films, Blindman, featuring Beatles drummer Ringo Star, and Trouble Man, a blaxploitation crime thriller. In May 1973 the building was sold to the Deliverance Evangelist Church by RKO Stanley Warner for $350,000. The church remained at this location until 1992.

The theater sat vacant for more than a decade until it was purchased by Dr. Owen Williamson in 2005. The renovation of the building became a labor of love to honor of his late wife Claretilda. Starting with a leaking roof, Dr. Williamson continued to repair and repaint the theater, slowly working to bringing it back to its former glory. Unfortunately, over time, the project became too expensive for Dr. Williamson and it returned to vacancy once more.

Reinventing a Neighborhood Landmark

The Logan Theater’s auditorium in 2012. | Photo: Chandra Lampreich

Nolbert Brown Jr.’s career spans from the creation of the iconic fictional character George Jefferson on the TV show All in the Family to writing for the stage and directing plays like The Life Story of Marvin Gaye, Bubbling Brown Sugar, and an upcoming remake of the 1959 film Imitation of Life. His work has earned him multiple Tony, Urban, and Gospel Awards.

Brown’s philanthropy has gone towards trying to save local landmarks like the Germantown YMCA, with a $1 million donation two years before it closed in 2008, and the Lansdale Performing Arts Theater. His current mission is to bring the Logan Theater back as the Ceceliy Tyson Music Theater under his 501c nonprofit The American Emerald Awards Foundation.  

The Logan Theater’s old ballroom in 2012. | Photo: Chandra Lampreich

Spearheaded by chief officer of operations, Damariz Winborne, the theater currently has a scheduled soft opening on February 1, 2023. An official grand opening is planned to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of the Logan Theater’s original 1923 opening. The venue will be renamed after groundbreaking African American actress Cicely Tyson, who had a seven-decade career until her passing in January 2021.

Both principals overseeing the restoration project took turns showing me around the interior. My immediate impression was that the reactivating the building is part of a goal to bring back a component of North Philadelphia that has been buried under the long-standing stigma of divestment, minus the recently gentrifying areas in Francisville and around Temple University.

A second floor lounge area in 2012. | Photo: Chandra Lampreich

Brown and his associates said the theater will be renovated and reopened under the mantra “For us, by us, from us.” The project is seen as a course correction that will pay homage to the days when the city was known for its distinctive Philly Soul that came from the studios of Philadelphia International Records, Gamble & Huff, and Sigma Sound. There will be no rap or hip hop acts on the performance roster. Instead, the focus will be on soul, R&B, gospel, comedy, dance, and related acts. Performers tentatively on the schedule include Jeffrey Osborne, Mavis Staples, Mighty Clouds of Joy, and Rose Royce to name a few. Instead of going to venues in Atlantic City, the revenue generated at the Ceceliy Tyson Music Theater will stay in the community.

Building Black Broadway

The Logan Theater’s balcony seating in 2012. | Photo: Chandra Lampreich

As locals poked their heads into the front door to see what the commotion was about, Winborne began taking down their information as part of the interviewing process. The opening of the theater is expected to bring about 200 to 350 jobs to the area ranging from ticket takers, ushers, kitchen staff, custodians, and management. Starting wages are expected to be around $15 an hour. Organizers said that off-duty police and the M.I.B Security Group will also be employed to make sure that the area is safe and comfortable for patrons. VIP booths will be available for special guests, and a house orchestra made up of local musicians will also play during events.

A banquet hall is planned for the long dormant ballroom upstairs which will be closed off to events happening in the main performance space and rented for catered events. A buildout of the unfinished lower level space will serve as a performing arts and music school. The project also includes space for a satellite location of Germantown’s Bleu Soul restaurant, which is also owned by Brown. A large mural is planned for the exterior wall of the parking lot that will feature various Black musicians and luminaries as well as the theater’s former owner Dr. Williamson and his wife Claretilda.

The lobby of the Logan Theater in 2012. | Photo: Chandra Lampreich

Initial plans are to reinstate the operational programming of the original Logan Theater with matinees and special events from Tuesday to Sunday. Special events include posthumous awards including one for singer-songwriter Minnie Ripperton whose daughter, the comedian and actress Maya Rudolph, is scheduled to accept in her mother’s honor.

Brown’s vision for the venue is to become Philadelphia’s own Apollo Theater and to informally christen Broad and Wyoming as Black Broadway. Organizer’s say that the space will not simply be providing entertainment, but for giving back to the community. For example, a free meals program will take place during the holidays.



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About the Author

Keshler Thibert is a voracious reader, book collector, tour guide, and current member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides. He was born and raised in Philadelphia, but has also lived in Atlanta, GA, Santiago de Chile, Madrid, Patras, Greece, and Adelaide, South Australia. Thibert has an interest in social sciences, language, and local history. Read more of his work on Substack.

25 Comments:

  1. John Snyder says:

    Great reporting. I was born and raised on the 4500 block of Carlisle St. Logan was my favorite theater. The Saturday matinee was 25cents. Glad to know it has a chance to see new life

    1. Natalie P. says:

      I call this Building Back Black andBetter!

  2. Michael J Toklish says:

    What a magnificent theater!! I hope it can be saved and repurposed!!

  3. vincent lopez says:

    Wonderful, I love your ideas. Good luck in your endeavors. Can’t wait to see the finished Theater.

  4. Lou Lescas says:

    This is great news. I have been by that building a hundred times since the mid- 1970’s, and I could never figure why it wasn’t a major arts venue. Thanks for an informative article.

  5. Jonathan Jacobs says:

    My great grandfather was a projectionist here! This is awesome!

  6. Charlene Samuels says:

    Good morning,

    It is good to hear that something good is coming back to Logan. I have been a Logan resident for 30 years. I am tired of Logan being referred to as the place of the sinking homes, we are much more than that. I am the Chairperson for the Logan Civic Association and we have been working hard to revitalize our community. I am one of many who loves Logan, and we know that Logan has great potential. I appreciate your vision to bring restoration to this landmark structure.

    1. L David Chappelle says:

      I attended Cooke junior high school from 1966 to 1969 and after school I would stand and look at the Logan theater and the beauty of the place would take my breath away. This will be a great moment to behold in the city of Philadelphia PA.

  7. Sandra Marigna Harmon says:

    Incredible investigative work. Looking forward to seeing where this goes.

  8. This is awesome. I was too young to know it as a theater. However, I remember many Sundays at Deliverance Church watching my grandmother on that hugh stage in the Choir. Sunday school was held upstairs in the Ballroom area. I have awesome memories. As a logan native and current resident, I am truly looking forward to the restoration of such a beautiful place.

  9. John Greene says:

    I worked as an usher around 1959 and saw a rock n roll show there featuring Bobby darrin. It had a lot of cool secret rooms

    1. John F Fleming says:

      Johnny Greene, theres a name from the past. I was friends with you and most of all the other ushers of that era. Dougherty, Celloto, Luty. All great guys that let me in for nothing. We all hung at Ben’s and played basketball in the back of my house.

  10. Dave P says:

    Glad to see civic minded people and individuals restoring these buildings (like the Met, etc) and not $ome group that ju$t want$ to tear thing$ down, like the Boyd Theater:

    The Boyd’s auditorium was demolished in the Spring of 2015 by its current owner Pearl Properties, which plans to replace it with a 24 story residential tower.

  11. Wonderful news. My grandpop told a story about when he, a track runner at Olney High School, would race the trolley down Wyoming Avenue from the Logan Movie to his house on Front Street in the early 1930s.

  12. Thank you for the valuable in-depth history! This project will help restore the vibrancy and culture of Logan that was lost over the years.

  13. Rick Spector says:

    Please watch my video about Logan from long ago:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O5NbGO7zQDk&t

    thank you!

  14. Noelle says:

    There was a guy in 80’s who wrote a book about theatres in Philly. No recall of name of book or author.

  15. Gail Moritz Oberta says:

    I grew up at 4744 Carlisle street in the ‘40’s, right behind the Logan Theater. The alley-way was our “playground”, roller-skating down the ramp or sledding down in winter. Saturday matinees there were a treat. I attended Logan Elem, Cooke Jr Hi. Great Logan memories!

  16. Also Davis says:

    Bravo! The way things should be done. I hope the community will support it. This could be a vital improvement.

  17. Aaron Finestone says:

    Yeah Logan! The historic land of great bakeries, delis, butcher shops, fish stores, fruit and vegetable stores!— and three movies on Broad Street.

  18. Jerry B. says:

    I lived at 4758 N. 10th street from 1970 until the city demolished our block in 1988 and played on Warnock st, Hunting Park and Logan Police Atheletic League. I attended Birney Elementary played ball for Cooke Jr. High and Olney High before getting an athletic scholarship to Mansfield University of Pennsylvania…I still have friends in Logan and absolutely miss the community. I always felt blessed to have been raised in Logan.

  19. Rita Poley says:

    I spent so many Saturday afternoons at The Logan – it was like Hollywood for us. I even took ballet lessons upstairs in the ballroom. Wishing you great success with this venture. Rita

  20. James R Robb says:

    i AM SO GRATEFULFOR THOSE WHO TOOK UP THIS CHALLENGE TO BRING BACK THE lOGAN. Went there many times back in 60s, 70s.
    THANK YOU!

  21. James says:

    Wonderful comments. I am glad we renovated the Met and now the Logan Theater.

    What I am wondering is who will buy the Theater next to Temple University and renovate it. A few years ago Temple was considering building a new performance center on campus a few years ago but did not get to build one. Were Temple to buy and renovate the theater crying to be put back to work, this would lead to a groundsweii of investment to make the commercial area more safer for Temple students to shop there if the stores were repurposed to serve students with cash.

  22. Judy Seibert says:

    GREAT NEWS. It would be wonderful to have The Logan Theater operating again. I grew up on Sydenham St, in the late 40’s, early 50’s (I AM OLD), and spent many, many Saturday afternoons watching the matinee at The Logan. Great memories

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