Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Delaware County

Goes into the fascinating history of the Tower Theater in Upper Darby and how much cultural significance it had to the locals.

Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Delaware County
Photo by Felix Mooneeram / Unsplash

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The Tower Theater, located on the corner of 69th and Ludlow in Upper Darby, PA, just outside of Philadelphia, was first opened in 1927. Not only did it make a good start by being built in record time, but even the initial 3500 seats were installed in just 5 days. The name of the building was reflected in that it had a big blue tower attached to the top of the building, with the name “Tower” spelled out in bright illuminated red lettering.

When it first opened, the theater was the premiere place to go to see all sorts of Vaudeville acts. Such business sustained the theater for the first decade and a half, but by the late 30s Vaudeville was on the decline and people were beginning to turn out less. As a result, the theater began to show movies in addition to the live shows.

Over the course of the next few decades, movies naturally became the primary attraction. Then, in the early 70s, the theater changed owners and was converted fully into a live music venue. Bands touring in the area quickly began to take a liking to the incredible acoustics of the place. Bands started often recording their live albums there to take advantage of them.

Famous People and Stories

The most famous person to perform there is almost certainly David Bowie, who recorded a live album there on July 10th, 1974 and released it as David Live. Many other important artists have performed there as well though. For some concerts, you didn’t even need to be in the venue to hear the incredible music. King Biscuit Flower Hour, a famous FM radio show, were responsible for recording and live broadcasting many live concerts to a larger audience than they would have ever gotten otherwise.

They most famously broadcast Kansas’s comeback show on Valentines day in 1989 and later released the whole thing on CD. David Crosby recorded his own comeback show that same year, having them broadcast the show.

Some bands did more than just record audio there though. The theater not only had great acoustics, but great visuals as well. Rusted Root filmed their two-night show there December 12-13, 1996, and released it as a video that came included with their live CD from the show. The video showcased not only the incredible view that the theater provided, but even showed off the backstage areas as well, which had previously been unseen by the general public.

In general, the Tower has always served as the perfect spot for bands just starting out who want to grow, as well as larger bands looking to put on a show that has a closer connection to the audience. One of the more famous stories regarding the venue goes back to when the Rolling Stones stopped there as part of their Forty Licks tour in 2002. From what every person who attended said, they had a blast and the crowd loved every second of it. One attendee recalls that they were so close to the stage that they “could smell the smoke on Keith Richard’s breath”. This isn’t just hyperbole, as the venue was actually designed specifically to facilitate these more intimate moments.

The floor was actually built to be slightly sloped up from the back to the front, meaning that no matter where you are seated, you will have an excellent view of the stage. That being said, the balcony seats are still the best in the house. You’ll feel so close to the band that you might even worry about falling over onto the stage!

Conclusion

Sadly, the Tower Theater has seen better days.The venue isn’t as popular as it once was, but that was to be expected, as entertainment has shifted from going out of the house to staying in. No, the real tragedy is that the actual tower portion of the building has been taken down. In 2019, management had a crew on site to replace the lights in the letters, when they discovered that the structural integrity of the tower was incredibly poor.

So poor that it needed to be taken down entirely as soon as possible, as it was threatening to collapse right onto the street in front of the building. While a repair plan was considered at first, they eventually came to the conclusion that there was nothing that could realistically be done. The tower that stood since the day the building first opened was dismantled for good. The owners are currently looking to replace it at some point in the future, but there have not been any moves to do so as of writing.

No matter what the fate of the theater is, nothing will change its cultural impact on the local community of Upper Darby. Countless people have had the night of their lives there, getting to see some of the most talented performers in history. With any luck, the venue will remain a cultural icon for decades to come, and perhaps someday another bright up and coming star will get their start here, at the Tower Theater.

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