How Local Leaders Are Reviving Wilmington’s Arts Scene – Starting with The Queen

Updated September 11, 2016
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The story of the decaying Queen Theater becoming one of the coolest music venues in the region, reviving Wilmington’s arts scene and giving people more to do in the city.

Read the full original article by Mike Bederka from Delaware Today.

In 2007, Hal Real—founder of West Philadelphia’s popular World Cafe Live—made a handshake agreement to create a similar music venue at The Queen, a long-dark movie theater in Wilmington.

Conversations with developers from the Buccini/Pollin Group, the city government, foundations and banks ensued. Then came the Great Recession. 

“If I was a rational, hard-ass businessman, I would have said, ‘Folks, this is the wrong time. We’ll stick in Philly for now and see you when the economy improves,’” Real says. “But I knew that Wilmington had so many misfires, and people were cynical. They believed downtown was never going to come back.” 

The Queen, empty since 1959, had turned into a symbol of blight. Real wanted to make the venue a “beacon of hope” that would help to rejuvenate Market Street.

“I became emotionally charged,” Real says. “I always talk about leveraging the power of music to build community, and I said it’s now more important than ever to move forward with this project.”

Restoration of the 45,000-square-foot building, which dates to 1871, took 36 months and $25 million. The money was raised by the city government, the private sector, and philanthropic and arts communities.

Real describes the rehab simply: “What’s old is old, and what’s new is new.” Designers didn’t try to distress anything to make it appear worn or restore the stage to its original splendor. “We found her majesty like a hockey player with busted teeth,” he says. “People need to see what happens when you abandon a building. What we could save, we left looking old.”

A host of new features was added, however. They include LED lighting and state-of-the-art acoustic paneling that would rival a symphony hall, which creates a rare juxtaposition of modern and timeworn in a music venue, Real says. 

On April 2, 2011, World Cafe Live at The Queen debuted, with Ingrid Michaelson as the first act. Jeff Flynn, director of economic development for the city, calls redevelopment of The Queen “a huge win.” 

“Not only did we save a historic Wilmington icon, but we added an outstanding arts and entertainment venue and another step forward for Wilmington’s revitalization,” Flynn says. “Renovating The Queen was nothing short of a financial and construction miracle. The city couldn’t be more grateful to Hal for seeing the vision of what we were trying to create and joining in and making a game-changing investment in Wilmington.”

Real, an energetic 63-year-old who lives in Rockland Mills, remains humble about his role. He focuses on the notion of a “community clubhouse” that has made World Cafe Live at The Queen, now celebrating its fifth anniversary, a success.

The building houses an eclectic mix of entertainment and private functions. In any given week, there will be a networking or corporate event, a wedding, a kids’ show, an up-and-coming local band in the small venue and a household name in the big theater, which fits 1,000 people.

The Queen this year will host about 350 ticketed shows and 150 free ones, plus hundreds of events, from a small business lunch to a blowout bar mitzvah. Musicians who have hit the stage run the gamut, from Philly singer-songwriter Amos Lee to the ascendant Lake Street Dive to classic rocker Dave Mason of Traffic fame.

“What makes us unique is not only the broad range of what we present but it’s the way we present it,” Real says. 

The venue tailors the setup to match each artist. Jazz bassist Stanley Clarke got a nightclub atmosphere with black tablecloths and candlelight. Experimental pop band Animal Collective got a clear floor to allow lots of dancing.

Real struggles to name a few highlights from The Queen’s first five years—there are almost too many to count—but when pressed, he does relent. 

There was the time country artist Chris Stapleton performed in front of 300 people. “He has won just about every award he has been nominated for in the past 12 months,” says Real. “You will never see him with less than 5,000 people now.”

After ex-Yes frontman Jon Anderson did a solo acoustic show, he sought out Real to tell him it was one of the best rooms he has ever played. 

Real’s proudest moments, however, come during the annual Shine a Light fundraiser. The program supports the Light Up The Queen Foundation, which brings in thousands of schoolkids each year for music workshops and sessions. 

The Shine a Light concert attracts 60-plus musicians from the Brandywine Valley. Each song mixes up the band members. “It lifts the whole music community to work together,” he says.

Roger LaMay, general manager for radio station WXPN—a partner of World Cafe Live—says Real truly loves music and is inspired by those who make it.

“His great respect for both artists and audiences led him to build a clubhouse at The Queen where both can engage at a high level,” LaMay says. “It takes passion and commitment to take on a revitalization of this scale in downtown Wilmington. Nobody does something like this to make money. You do it to make a difference. Fortunately for Delaware, Hal has persevered and given Wilmington a gift that will keep on giving for years to come.”

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