The Trocadero Theatre, the Chinatown venue that originally opened in 1870 and has been a mainstay of the Philadelphia music scene since the mid-1980s after operating as a vaudeville and burlesque house for most of the 20th century, is going out of business, according to an employee and a promoter who regularly booked shows at the venue.
Owner Joanna Pang did not return a request for comment, and messages left at the Troc’s main line have gone unanswered.
This Sunday, the music education organization Play On, Philly is presenting a show with Little Strike (the stage name of Israeli musician Tamar Dart), local songwriter Rachel Andie, and the Poppin’ Off String Band in the Troc’s upstairs Balcony bar.
Philadelphia promoter Dave Kisleiko of Dave Kiss Presents, who put on two main stage shows and three to five in the Balcony bar a month, said the industrial-rock band Stabbing Westward on March 31 was his last show to be booked at the venue.
The Trocadero has a storied past. Built by architect Edward Durang, who was known for his churches up and down the East Coast, it opened as the Arch Street Opera House in 1870. But according to Irvin R. Glazer, author of Philadelphia Theatres, A-Z, it didn’t actually present opera, instead specializing in minstrel shows and musical comedies. It was renamed the Trocadero in 1896, and shifted to vaudeville in 1903, with bump-and-grind striptease acts being a principal part of its business model for the next 75 years.
Over the years, it was known as the Trocadero as well as many other names. W.C. Fields and Mae West performed there, as did dancers with such stage monikers as Terry Firma and Polly Ethel Lean, who was billed as “a warm body in a plastic world.”
The Troc, which has a capacity of 1,200 for general admission shows, played a vital role booking touring bands in the 1990s and 2000s. Besides innumerable punk-rock all-ages gigs (frequently happening on Sunday afternoons), a wide range of acts played there, including Sonic Youth, Wilco, Nancy Sinatra, Jeff Buckley, Hole, and Tom Jones. Pearl Jam played there in 1992, and Eddie Vedder joined the Foo Fighters as a special guest on the Dave Grohl-led band’s first tour in 1995. In 1997, Bob Dylan played two shows at the Chinatown club.
In recent years, the Troc has struggled to find a niche in a Philadelphia-area club scene full up with many similar-size rooms such as the Theater of Living Arts, World Cafe Live, and Union Transfer, not to mention suburban venues such as the Keswick Theatre in Glenside and Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collingswood.
When the Troc had a booking arrangement with concert promoters AEG Live, marquee names were still appearing at the Arch Street venue on a semiregular basis, such as the country star Kacey Musgraves, who played there in 2015.
But lately, buzzed-about acts have been few and far between, though local promoter Kisleiko hosted the Philly rock and soul band Low Cut Connie this past New Year’s Eve and the New Zealand indie rock band the Chills last month.
Kisleiko said that losing the Troc will have a negative impact on the Philly music scene because “every room bigger than something like a 600-person capacity is now controlled by Live Nation or AEG/Bowery. They’ll let me in their rooms to host shows from time to time, but at a premium. Losing the Trocadero limits the scaling of small businesses like mine.”
Indie venues, Kisleiko said, are not just cheaper for promoters like himself to book but have lower ticketing fees and cheaper drinks. “Most of these costs will be passed on to the concert attendees.”
The venue was not without its financial trouble. In 2011, Pang filed for bankruptcy, but the matter was resolved in 2012 after restructuring.
The Troc’s modern era began in 1979, when Pang’s father, Stephen Pang, purchased the theater and operated it as a Chinese-themed cinema, showing martial-arts movies and other cultural offerings, as well as renting it out to fine arts organizations, like the Pennsylvania Opera Theater, who likely presented the first-ever operas at the venue originally known as an opera house. Nightlife impresario Rick Blatstein opened the venue as a rock club in 1986, and brothers David and Stephen Simons (the latter now a restaurateur partner in Royal Boucherie and Cantina Los Caballitos, among other Philly eateries) took it over in 1991.
Throughout its years as a rock club, the venue – which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 – retained a decayed, grungy atmosphere, perhaps making it the ideal setting for the Pacific Northwest-born dominant rock style of the 1990s.
But the Troc also has beautiful bones as one of Philadelphia’s few remaining showplaces from a bygone era. In 1991, the now-deceased Glazer told the Inquirer that “it’s the last truly Victorian theater – not only in Philadelphia, but probably the whole country. Fully restored, along with the Academy of Music and the Walnut, it would be one of the great theaters in the city.”
In that grouping, Glazer did not include the Met Philadelphia, the North Broad Street showplace that’s 48 years younger than the Troc and whose $56 million restoration has been met with a much-deserved hullabaloo.
But at the recent shows at the Trocadero with Low Cut Connie and the Chills, it was hard not to compare and contrast the Chinatown mainstay with the much larger North Philly venue that’s stirred so much excitement. Like the Met, the Troc’s stage is framed by an elegant proscenium arch, and has plenty of classy touches, from its mirrored walls and Victorian drawings on the ceiling, to iron ornamental columns and classical cornices.
And while it can’t compete with the Met for a majestic wow factor, the Troc does have intimacy in its favor, with a capacity that’s one-third of the larger venue. It’s disheartening that it’s going out of business after a long run as a vital rock club, but it would be an even greater shame if the venue is not preserved and someday revived. It’s one of Philadelphia’s great showplaces.