Symbol of a Downtown Revival

Krista Connor

Transformed from a derelict building, World Cafe Live at The Queen celebrates its fifth anniversary, and founders and fans look back—and forward

It’s 2008, and word has spread throughout the Wilmington arts community that Philadelphia’s World Cafe Live music and events venue is branching out to revive the derelict Queen Theater on lower Market Street. Abandoned for 50 years, it is a 45,000-square-foot shadow of a once-pulsating downtown.

From the Indian Queen Tavern in 1789 to a banking headquarters in 1871, to the Clayton House Hotel that same decade, to a movie theater in 1916, the building had already endured more than a century of transformations before its doors closed in 1959.

And now, the people who make their weekday commute past the ghost of a building at 500 N. Market St. have one of three reactions: Some shake their heads at one more depressing, crumbled piece of architecture that will never be anything more; some glance up, briefly wondering, hopeful for what it could be; and then there are the pragmatic visionaries who are certain that reconstructing the theater into a music and events venue would be a major step in the resuscitation of a stricken yet enduring downtown.

If successful, it would be a cornerstone in the $300 million effort already underway to breathe new life into Market Street.

Thankfully, the visionaries—Wilmington developers Buccini/Pollin Group (who initiated the idea), city officials, WCL founder Hal Real with Real Entertainment Group, area philanthropists, countless board members, dozens of corporate backers—are triumphant.

Construction begins in 2009, and two years later in April 2011, The Queen’s doors are open for business after a $25 million restoration.

Flash forward to present day, and on Friday, April 1, World Cafe Live at The Queen celebrates its fifth anniversary with a day full of music, featuring Grammy winner Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals during a special WXPN Free at Noon performance.

But the five years are so much more than a number. In that time, the building has become equal to other Market Street entertainment icons—The Grand Opera House, DuPont Theater/Playhouse on Rodney Square—by attracting 1,800 internationally-acclaimed or up-and-coming artists, drawing more than 500,000 guests, and hosting 950 events. It has welcomed Ingrid Michaelson, the Wailers, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Manchester Orchestra, Neutral Milk Hotel, Conor Oberst and more.

Says Tina Betz, executive director of the nonprofit corporation Light Up The Queen, which is dedicated to furthering The Queen’s revival and community programs: “The Queen was dying ‘til it was finally dead for about 50 years. It was not only possible to make a successful project out of the renovation, but now World Cafe Live at The Queen has been alive for five years. It feels pretty damn good.”

Hal Real, WCL Founder (Photo by James Kegley)

Hal Real, WCL Founder (Photo by James Kegley)

A Beacon of Light

And to Real, the five years parallel Wilmington’s journey.

“I think World Cafe Live at The Queen is a symbol of the city—of urban blight casting a shadow over Market Street that’s turned into a beacon of light to the future,” he says. “This is the visible difference of what happens when you light a place up and have hundreds of thousands of people coming and going at all times and for all things.”

Real has watched Market Street start to become the changed place people had wished for. New restaurants have opened and continue to open, apartment buildings have sprung up, and a new generation of young professionals has sought out an urban living environment.
“It’s action, it’s happening,” he says. “And I’m proud of our role as a catalyst for that. We look forward to seeing what it looks like five years from now. It takes a couple of major anchors that hunker down and say, ‘We’re here. We mean it. We’re not going anywhere.’ The future is now.”

While for years The Grand and DuPont Theater/Playhouse had brought thousands of people into town, Betz says the “big desert” from 7th Street to 2nd has been heavily impacted by The Queen’s revival. Having people come to 5th and Market helped them understand that areas south of 7th didn’t have to be a “desolate, unused, unattended area of town,” says Betz.

“Since The Queen came back to life, we’ve had several new restaurants open, and the 400 block of Market Street—that sat as a war zone for many years—has been totally transformed,” she says.

It’s now a place you want to go, she says.

Senator Tom Carper, an avid music fan and long-time supporter of the venue since its founding, agrees.

“Potential is being realized, and a big part of that has been the presence of The Queen,” he says. “I love The Queen.”

Of course, despite positive changes, negative stereotypes about downtown and Market Street still exist.

More than 1,800 concerts have been held at The Queen since 2011. (Photo by Joe del Tufo)

More than 1,800 concerts have been held at The Queen since 2011. (Photo by Joe del Tufo)

Real offers an example: Parents of couples interested in holding weddings at The Queen (there have been 75 held there so far) have been known to refuse to go to the venue to look at it, and countless visitors from the suburbs have recounted to Real their hesitation in coming to a show or event out of fear for their safety.

Until they arrive. Then, he says, they’re blown away, and most return for future events, and spread the word to their friends and families.

“A lot of the naysayers said you’re not getting old people, young people, white people, black people, poor people, rich people, to come to this place. ‘That’s just not Wilmington,’” says Real. “We’ve proven that so wrong. We’re leveraging the power of music to build community in a casual way.”

Community Clubhouse

For Carper, who originally wanted to be a music promoter before he got into politics, The Queen’s past five years represent “the fulfillment of a dream.” He’s been to 40 concerts at the venue —favorites being the Jayhawks, Dar Williams, Gin Blossom—and even got to host his 65th birthday concert there in 2012, with 1,000 people.

“It’s a community project,” says Real. “It belongs to everyone, whether you’re 5 years-old or 85. It’s for weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, corporate workshops, beer and wine events, kids’ programs.”

Through these avenues and more, The Queen dubs itself “a community clubhouse.” It promotes civic engagement and partners with the Light Up the Queen Foundation to offer programs to thousands of Wilmington students, including innovative music education Bridge Sessions through LiveConnections, the Smart Arts! performance series and the inaugural Boysie Lowery Living Jazz Residency for 13 talented young people.

And aside from hosting international acts, WCLQ is a great base for up-and-coming artists, including local musicians and out-of-towners looking for a gig. Real says it’s the kind of place for fans to say, “Oh, I saw them play in an intimate setting before they got really popular.”

And performers appreciate the stage they are given. Ben LeRoy, an area musician who frequently performs at the venue with his band THE SNAP and during the Shine a Light fundraisers for The Queen, says it’s an honor every time he steps onto the stage.
“The fact that we have a world class venue in our own backyard is not only a win for music fans, but also for working musicians who may not otherwise have the opportunity to perform in that type of environment,” he says.

Real, who moved to Wilmington from Philadelphia when the WCLQ project was underway, has since become involved with dozens of city boards and community groups. For him, the best moments are when, in his words, “we’re this hubbub of community in action,” such as Shine a Light concerts and the Boysie Lowery residency.

Programs like the residency present a path for a new generation of artists to continue what started a half decade ago.

Betz says the program has received testimony from thousands of kids who have walked through the doors for the first time and are amazed not just by the building but by the arts education programming.

“So many walk away totally engaged and involved, excited to come back,” she says. “Those are the highlights that keep you going. It’s why everybody works so hard to make sure it keeps going.”

She sees the anniversary as an important road marker.

“We’re out of the terrible twos, and we’re not just walking, but able to run a little bit as a 5-year-old.”

In addition to Free at Noon on the April 1 anniversary, the Upstairs Live restaurant will offer lunch and free live music from David Falcone. Free music will continue until midnight with a rotating cast of players from the annual Shine A Light fundraiser for the Light Up The Queen Foundation. Donations to support the foundation’s community programs will be accepted at the door. No RSVP is required. At 8 p.m. Downstairs Live local favorites Universal Funk Order, Atlas Gray and Spokey Speaky play a free show until 11:30 p.m. Again, no RSVP required.

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