Standing in front of the Queen Theater on one of the hottest days of the summer, Bill Taylor can see that it won’t be too long before the lights get turned on and the walls pulsate with the rhythms of live music.
Last year work began to transform the long-shuttered movie house into Wilmington’s largest live music venue. Sometime next year, the 45,000-square-foot structure will reopen as World Café Live at the Queen, a spin-off of the original World Café Live in Philadelphia. The building will come complete with a new studio for FM radio station WXPN, home of the nationally syndicated “World Café” radio program hosted by David Dye.
It is a moment Taylor once thought would never arrive. “It’s absolutely a miracle,” he says.
It seems like a lifetime has passed since he first toured the Queen two years ago at the invitation of lifelong friend Chris Buccini. The Buccini/Pollin Group, a local commercial and residential real estate developer with interests up and down the East Coast, had just purchased the decaying structure with plans to make it the centerpiece of its other renovations on Market Street.
Taylor visited from New Orleans, where he’d been living for the past several years. Even in its dilapidated state, the theater made a powerful impression. Taylor knew he and his hometown needed each other.
“It was amazing inside,” he says. “You could feel this was once a great building, and it still had marks of beauty throughout. But after 50 years of no TLC whatsoever, it was falling down. Standing on that stage for the first time was when I decided to come back and do this.”
The visit was tinged with a bit of nostalgia for the 39-year-old Taylor. His parents had watched “The African Queen” there decades ago.
In 1915 the 2,000-seat venue was the crown jewel of the downtown drag, drawing world-class performers to its stage and films to its screens. But the theater fell victim to suburban flight, so it closed in 1959. For the next half century it remained dormant.
After buying the building, Buccini teamed up with Hal Real, president and founder of World Café Live, who committed to establishing the franchise in Wilmington. The building will include with a restaurant and classrooms for arts education.
When the pair invited Taylor to tour the Queen, they were looking for someone to head the Light Up the Queen Foundation, a nonprofit formed to restore the theater. They wanted someone with music industry experience. They wanted someone who knew how to raise money. And they wanted someone with Wilmington roots. They wanted Bill Taylor.
The idea of using music to reinvigorate downtown Wilmington resonated with Taylor, who had been a prominent figure on the New Orleans music scene for several years. When Hurricane Katrina struck the city in 2005, he converted the foundation he’d established in 1997 to support the city’s music community into a font of aid for musicians and their families.
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“I’ve seen music bring New Orleans back,” he says. “If you bring creative people in, that’s what’s going to make the city pop again—the notion of a creative community and a creative economy.”
Like Taylor, Real knows how the arts can invigorate a neighborhood. Six years ago, he converted a blighted building in West Philadelphia into what is now World Café Live.
“The best thing you can do is have a lot of people around. The neighborhood lights up,” he says. “When we started this in Philly, there was nothing around us. Now there’s $3 billion worth of development planned.”
The venture will join a strong arts community. The duPont Theater, the Grand Opera House, the Christina Cultural Arts Center and the Delaware Theater Company are within a stone’s throw of each other. “Cities would die for what Wilmington has in terms of the arts,” says Wilmington Mayor James M. Baker. Baker cites a London Times article that touts Wilmington as one of the fastest-growing micro-cities in the world. “It’s your homegrown folks who are the hardest to sell,” he says.
But that’s changing. “We have people now who have the energy, who have the vision and who have worked together,” says Baker.
Proof is evident in the amount of private funds being pumped into the $24 million project. Local foundations, corporations, tax credits and benefit concerts make up the bulk of the support for Light Up the Queen. The city of Wilmington invested $3 million in the project that officials estimate will create 125 permanent jobs. Additional revenues will come from taxes paid by the theater and from patrons spending on restaurants and hotels.
Real believes Wilmington can evolve into a regional attraction, drawing fans from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland. He intends to book acts on consecutive nights in Philadelphia and Wilmington, giving fans more options to attend shows.
“If you live in the suburbs or near the Blue Route (I-476), it’s easier to come here than it is to go into Philadelphia,” he says.
Real also plans to build the local music scene, which Taylor describes as “thriving but fragmented.” About 70 percent of the acts performing on the second stage will be local artists.
“The Grand has a much larger capacity than we do,” Real says, “and hopefully we can grow artists that will grow into the Grand. That would be super. The same thing happened in Philly. We said it would mean more for everybody, and it has.”
As in Philadelphia, Real intends to use his resources to “build a clubhouse for the music and arts community.”
Taylor hears his grandparents’ recollections of the way Market Street used to bustle on the weekends, and he sees it being that way again. “Wilmington is a great city. It has great people,” he says. “The next couple of years are going to dictate that story.”