As mentioned last time, Bob Dylan will reopen the long-closed Metropolitan Opera House December 3rd, 55 years after his first Philadelphia appearance further down Broad Street. Where exactly did Dylan first perform in Philadelphia? Not the Academy of Music, which would be a logical guess (although Dylan did perform there in February 1966).
On October 25 1963—after the release of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, after his duet with Joan Baez at the Newport Folk Festival, and after singing at the March on Washington—Dylan made his Philadelphia debut at Town Hall, Broad and Race Streets. (Correction: According to Dan DeLuca, Dylan’s first “official gig” in the city, before an audience of about 45, was at the Ethical Society on Rittenhouse Square in May 1963. )
Dylan almost didn’t make it to Town Hall. “Riding here in manager Al Grossman’s Rolls,” The Daily News reported after the concert, Dylan and Grossman “suffered a flat tire and had to repair it” on the roadside with the help of the owner’s manual. The audience inside Philadelphia’s Town Hall waited patiently.
What? You never heard of Philadelphia’s Town Hall?
In a way, Town Hall’s anonymity today shouldn’t be a surprise. This “ominous, almost windowless” structure opened in 1927 as “The Temple of the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite of Free Masonry, of the Northern Jurisdiction in the Valley of Philadelphia” and was pulled down in the early 1980s. Only from the 1940s through the 1960s did producers and presenters program its gigantic auditorium with results that were at times impressive.
Starting in the early 1940s, Town Hall became a reflection of popular culture. Some would attend the mass meeting sponsored by the Philadelphia Fundamentalists, hearing Hyman Jedidiah Appleman launch his evangelistic crusade. (“A Jew Preaches Christ!” read the newspaper advertisement.) They’d endure Carle Knisley conducting Philadelphia’s Piano Orchestra, “22 girls at 12 Baldwin Grands.” Railroad buffs lined up to see the “National Model Show.”
Folks would come to hear William Z. Foster, the National Chairman of the Communist Party share their “important statement of policy” the presidential elections of 1944. They’d return to view “Russia’s First Post-War Musical Film ‘Hello Moscow!’” and the “Rebirth of Stalingrad,” kicked up a notch with “Russian Songs and Dances.”
Increasingly, the venue was used for performances: Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Mikado;” Vivian Della Chiesa and 70 male voices with the La Scala Opera Company Orchestra; the “Trapp Family ‘Musical Mother’ Baroness Maria Augusta von Trapp and her nine sons and daughters under the conductorship of the Family’s Priest, Franz Wasner;” The Southernaires Vocal Ensemble; and Ruth Morris, the “Great Negro Soprano.”
In 1944, drummer Gene Krupa and his new 30-piece band performed. Two years later, a presumably different audience came for a “Hayloft Hoedown and Barn Dance Show,” that was broadcast “Coast to Coast” on ABC.
In January 1950, a televised auction for March of Dimes offered “a new automobile from Frank Polumbo; gas hot water heaters, sets of tires, “four dozen autographed baseballs signed by members of the Athletics and Phillies, 12 footballs signed by each member of the Eagles championship squad; a refrigerator, a console TV set” and much more. A year later, Philadelphians got a taste of African dance with Pearl Primus, the Trinidad-born dancer and choreographer.
In the mid 1950s, regulars saw the Don Cassack Chorus and Dancers, the Kings College Choir, a “Holiday Parade of Stars” with Frank Fontaine, Roger Williams, the “peppy and pert” Eydie Gorme, and “Philadelphia’s own Al Martino.” The Sensations (also local) performed “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.” And in November, 1955, Ray Charles and his band performed sets before a backstage narcotics raid, thanks to the Philadelphia Police.
In the late 1950s, things revved up even more with the Miles Davis Quintet, John Coltrane, “Philly Joe” Jones and “Cannonball” Adderley.
A distinct folk habit took root with a regular visitors in Pete Seeger, The New Lost City Ramblers, Cynthia Gooding, John Jacob Niles and others.
In February, 1960, Hal Holbrook brought his long running one-man show, “Mark Twain Tonight” to Broad Street. Here it is from the 1967 version for television.
Audiences enjoyed the flamenco guitar of Carlos Montoya, the flamenco dance of Vicente Escudero in his “final farewell tour.” They heard the jazz piano of the Ahmad Jamal Trio.
In 1961, “America’s Most Controversial Comedian,” Lenny Bruce, brought his brand of reality-based satire. Here he is on “fake news.”
In 1962, Town Hall’s audiences welcomed Joan Baez, The Greenbriar Boys, Theodore Bikel, Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt, Marle Travis and the Foggy Mountain Boys, Josh White, Peter, Paul and Mary Bill Cosby “Temple University’s star fullback.”
Theodore Bikel returned the following year. So did the Weavers, The Greenbriar Boys, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. New faces, including The Johnson Boys, Clancy Brothers, Tommy Makem, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and, of course, Bob Dylan.
In the remaining years of the ‘60s, Town Hall presented Nina Simone, Marion Williams, Judy Collins, The Blues Project, Woody’s Truck Stop, Lou Rawls, the “controversial folk-rock group” known as The Fugs, The Nazz and The Doors, where Jim Morrison was said to perform in leather pants for the first time.
In 1970, Town Hall presented Yussuf Lateef and his quintet, Mose Allison’s Modern Jazz Quartet. In January of that year, Murray Weisberg, the general manager of Town Hall, died after a 20-year run. Things would never be the same again.
Later that year, the seven-story landmark was sold back to its original owners, the Scottish Rite Masons. After that, all it took was a few mishandled performances to erode audience faith. When the Buddy Miles Band took the stage in April 1971, there were more ushers in the hall than audience. The Inquirer reported “rumors that the rest rooms were locked” and quoted Buddy Miles muttering “This is weird. This is (bleep) weird.”
Eleven mostly silent years passed before a headline asked readers who remembered Town Hall to wonder: “Will Wrecker’s Ball Be Final Lot of Scottish Rite Cathedral?” In December 1982 a new owner filed a demolition permit. The plan? To put up a parking lot.
“Don’t it always seem to go,” wrote Joni Mitchell, who performed instead in the 1970s at the Academy of Music, the Second Fret, the Main Point, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”
[Sources: Advertisements in The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News, 1930s-1970s; Jerry Gaghan, “Riding High,” Philadelphia Daily News, October 28, 1963; “Masons Again Own Long-Lost Town Hall,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 2, 1970; Jack Lloyd, “’Buddy Miles’ Band Sparkles-But the Audience is a Flop,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 24, 1971; Christopher Hepp, “Will Wrecker’s Ball Be Final Lot of Scottish Rite Cathedral?” Philadelphia Daily News, December, 14, 1982; [Obituary] M. Weisberg, Theater Head, The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 3, 1970.]