The marquee dazzles. Set just off the historic Queen Theatre’s front entrance, a 40-foot-high blue blade sign etches the name "World Café Live at the Queen" into the twilight sky.
In early April the World Café Live at the Queen opened its glass doors at Fifth and Market Street hosting a stream of music fans in a downtown stretch of Wilmington that was once foreboding. These days the storefronts are spiffed up and new feet stroll down the formerly empty sidewalks. An entrepreneurial energy is in the air.
With two stages, a five-tiered balcony, and six floors that stretch across a city block, the Queen has undergone a $25 million makeover over the past 20 months.
“Music has a distinctive power to transform the landscape of a city, and we hope it will bring a vibrant new energy to Lower Market Street," said World Café Live President Hal Real. “It’s a world-class venue engineered from the ground up for the purpose of experiencing live music at its best.”
Among the sold-out headliners the first fortnight were Todd and the Wet Sprocket, Aimee Mann, and the rollicking Texas swing outfit Asleep at the Wheel. The Queen will host many of the same eclectic, wide-ranging national musical acts that have stamped the World Café Live venue in West Philly and WXPN radio station as nationally celebrated names.
Wilmington’s Downstairs Live is an eye-popping space with 65-foot ceilings and a bi-level balcony. The sightlines to the main stage are splendid. The acoustics are superb. Still, there is a lot of the original Queen that was cleverly worked into the new design-- the 1916 cement façade that frames the main stage house, an ornate ceiling medallion and a trio of recently discovered lunette-shaped canvas murals.
The Queen has been a part of Wilmington's landscape since the late 1780s when the site first housed the Indian Queen Inn, a freewheeling tavern and public house for sailors that arrived in the city’s port. By the 1850s it had been razed and rebuilt as the Clayton House, a five-story luxury hotel with massive chandeliers and steam powered elevators.
With the opening of the Hotel du Pont the building was gutted and transformed in 1917 into the Queen Theatre, a movie palace and vaudeville theatre where tickets cost between five and twenty five cents. The 2,500-seat silver screen movie house cost $250,000 to build, strutted a neon 32-foot high “Queen“sign and a $10,000 organ. In 1942 a significant renovation by Warner Brothers transformed it into a state of the art movie experience. However, with the exit of residents to the suburbs the Queen was unable to compete with other local theatres and eventually went dark in 1959 after a showing of Vincent Price’s “House on Haunted Hill.”
The rebirth of the Queen was spearheaded by Real, owner of the first World Café Live venue in Philadelphia. In 2007 he partnered with Wilmington developers Buccini/Pollin Group and the non-profit “Light Up the Queen Foundation” to convert the crumbling building back to a live performance venue.
“When I first walked through the building I came across this large movie projector that still had the spool of the Vincent Price film in it,” Real said with a smile. “I guess when the theater was shut down they just turned off the lights and locked the door. Walking around that day I saw busted windows, bird carcasses on the stage and a gaping hole in the roof where the rain poured in. It was like the Queen was crying from all those years of neglect.”
Today, it houses the 400-seat or 800-standing capacity Downstairs Live that hosts both established and emerging national touring artists. Upstairs Live is a 160-seat room that features daily performances by local and regional musicians. There is a full service kitchen serving lunch and dinner. The Olympia Room (a former boxing training gym) is a 180-seat person private event space with floor to ceiling windows overlooking Market Street. There is also an on-site satellite WXPN-FM broadcast studio. Wilmington resident and renowned musician David Bromberg has revived the once a week folk and bluegrass jams that originated at the old 4W5 Café.
The World Café Live in Philly stages roughly 550 ticketed concerts annually, attracting more than 150,000 music fans each year. Real anticipates Wilmington’s version will stage 350 shows each year.
“The World Café Live brand is well established, that’s a huge plus,” said Real, who walks to work from his residence at the Riverfront. “We’ve learned a hell of a lot over the past seven years about offering a first-class guest experience, and we get to apply that here.”
Real says that they will be grooming acts that eventually appear at the Grand Opera House, four blocks up the street.
“They’ve been the Lone Ranger for so long,” Real noted. “We’ll be doing cross promotions beneficial to both of us. Now we have two bookends that will put Wilmington on the national music map.”
General Manager Derek Newton has a wealth of experience opening hotels, restaurants and resorts. For the past decade Newton worked as a restaurant development and management consultant to Robert Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television and the first African American billionaire. A graduate of Cheney University with a business degree, the Queen is Newton’s 12th major project.
“I didn’t realize what I was getting into here,” Newton said with a chuckle. “I’ve seen people walk through here crying reflecting back to when they would come to see a Saturday double feature. It’s really been quite moving.”
Newton has put together a skilled culinary team who are executing an eclectic pub menu. They are part of upwards of 100 full and part-time employees hired by the Queen, many involved in the local art scene. He sees the venue as a catalyst to stimulate businesses and engage the local community along Market Street, the city’s central artery.
“We’re building bridges and opportunities for people to get back into the work force,” Newton related. “You know there are these stigmas, urban myths. I’ve seen changes in the area around a venue where I worked in Washington, D. C. It takes vision, hard work and staying power. I’m pumped to be part of this opportunity.”
Bill Taylor heads up the non-profit Light Up the Queen Foundation. He is a childhood pal of Chris Buccini, a partner in the development company that bought The Queen and other properties in the neighborhood. The foundation raised $4 million that helped fund the restoration that came through a mix of historic and new-market tax credits, grants, city funds and corporate and individual donors. Another $2.5 million still needs to be raised.
Beyond its top-tier music nearly every night, Real points out that the Queen will host a series of interactive musical performances for schools, seniors and those with special needs, PBJ kids shows, as well as presenting classical musical in a very non-traditional setting.
“We expect to use all our resources to create a new Wilmington clubhouse and a hangout for the arts and culture community,” Real said.
Inspired by a historic past, the Queen Theatre is stepping into a bright future.