The Tower Theater (aka the “Tower”) is an institution on the Philadelphia live music scene. Located in Upper Darby, PA (just outside the Philadelphia city limits), it held its first show in the summer of 1972. Since that time, the Tower has hosted a long list of artists including legends such as David Bowie, U2, Bob Marley, The Rolling Stones, and Eddie Vedder. Due to its great acoustics, a number of artists have recorded live albums at the Tower as well.
The building itself, distinguished by the mock radio tower on top of the building, was built in 1927 and opened the next year as a movie theater. It thrived for many years, but by the 1970’s it had fallen on hard times and had turned into a $1 movie theater showing third run movies.
In June of 1972, it was purchased and refurbished to be a performance venue. The first concert held there was Dave Mason and Buzzy Linhart on June 14, 1972, which sold out. For the next several years, the Tower was the venue in Philadelphia that brought in then relatively unknown acts such as David Bowie, Genesis, and Bruce Springsteen. In 1975, the owners sold the venue to its larger competitor, Electric Factory Concerts, who continues to operate the venue (Live Nation/Electric Factory Concerts) today.
Tip #1: Since the venue is owned and operated by Live Nation, to avoid the fees associated with buying your tickets on-line, you can buy tickets for shows at the Tower at any area Live Nation box office in addition to the Tower’s box office. We were recently at a show at The Filmore, and bought tickets for the Gov’t Mule show at the Tower at The Filmore’s box office. Saved the fees and got to pick our seats right on the seating chart.
If you will be attending a show at the Tower, here are some tips and tricks for optimizing your visit.
If you are traveling from out of town and looking to stay in a hotel, you don’t have any good options close to the venue. I would suggest staying in a hotel in Center City Philadelphia, which will also give you public transportation options for getting to the venue (more details below in “Getting to the Venue”). Staying in Center City Philadelphia also gives you the advantage of having easy accessibility to all the tourist attractions in the area, as well as restaurants and bars.
Tip #2: The immediate vicinity around the Tower can be a bit rough. While generally safe, it is not an area I would recommend staying in if you are from out of town. Also, immediately to the east of Upper Darby is the west Philadelphia area. This can be a pretty dangerous area of the city, so be aware of your surroundings and take care in getting to and from the venue.
Hotels in Center City Philadelphia can be expensive, and depending on what else is happening in the city at the time, they can also be hard to book. Another option just outside of the city, but still close to the venue, is to check hotels on City Avenue. Options there include a Hilton (http://www3.hilton.com/en/hotels/pennsylvania/hilton-philadelphia-city-avenue-PHLPHHF/index.html) and a Courtyard by Marriott (http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/phlav-courtyard-philadelphia-city-avenue/).
Getting to the Venue
The Tower is located just a few blocks (and within very easy walking distance) of the 69th Street Transportation Center, which is one of the biggest public transportation hubs in the city. At 69th Street, you have access to buses, the Route 101 and 102 trolley, the Norristown High Speed Line, and the Market-Frankford Line. This allows you to get into Center City if you are staying in a hotel there, as well as access SEPTA Regional Rail or Amtrak by getting into 30th Street Station. Check SEPTA’s website for exact routes, fares and schedules at http://septa.org/stations/transit/subway/69th.html.
Your other option to get to the venue is to drive. There is very limited street parking in the area. There are several lots within close vicinity. There is a parking garage at Chestnut and 69th Street, as well as a municipal lot at Garrett Road and Long Lane. You can also park at the 69th Street Transportation Center for a fee. Parking fees are typically very reasonable. We have always been able to find a spot in the Garrett Road lot, and the fee is just $5.
Before the Show
There aren’t a lot of good options close to the venue for food or drinks. As mentioned above, the neighborhood is very old and doesn’t have a lot of development. If you are coming from Center City Philadelphia, your best bet is to have dinner somewhere there before heading into the show.
If you are coming from the western suburbs/main line area, you may want to stop for dinner at Pica’s, which is a Delaware County (Delco) staple (http://picas-restaurant.com/). It’s claim to fame is that it is television and movie star Tina Fey’s favorite pizza. Pica’s is a very casual, family-owned Italian restaurant with the typical Italian staples. They make their pasta fresh, and their portions are huge. My favorite is the lasagna. You also can’t go wrong with their pizza. It’s made in a rectangular shape, and absolutely delicious. Pica’s has a full bar and is just a 5-10 minute drive down West Chester Pike from the Tower.
If you are looking for a more intimate Italian restaurant, try Bona Cucina which is located at 66 Sherbrook Blvd in Upper Darby. It’s BYOB, so you can bring a bottle of wine or your favorite beer with you. Note that the restaurant is quite small, so you may want to make reservations to ensure that you are able to finish dinner in time before the show.
Finally, if you are feeling a bit more adventurous and are craving Mexican food, try Mexican Grill la Guera located at 132 Garrett Road in Upper Darby. I would suggest parking wherever you plan to park for the show and then walking to the restaurant, as street parking is limited. I would describe this as a “Mexican diner”. There is a counter space where you can sit and order, as well as a few tables. The kitchen/grill is open behind the counter. The menu is in Spanish and English, and the staff speaks both as well. The portions are huge and you get chips and salsa to start. I had the steak fajitas, which were delicious, but enough for two people. They do not serve alcohol.
About the Venue
Doors typically open 1 hour before the performance is scheduled to begin. There are three entrance doors, so be sure to utilize all three to get into the venue faster. Upon entering the venue, the merchandise stand is usually set up right in the front lobby.
Tip #3: The merchandise stand can get pretty crowded before and after the show due to its location in the front lobby where everyone is entering and exiting. If you don’t mind missing a song and aren’t concerned about a poster selling out, go out during the show to get your t-shirts and posters for a much faster transaction.
As you continue into the venue, you’ll enter a large open area with a bar and a few tables. This is where everyone typically hangs out to have a few drinks before the show. There is a second bar to your right, just as you are entering the area for the main level seats. The ladies’ restroom is located all the way in the back of the building down the stairs (if you go to the main bar, it’s just past the far end of the bar). The men’s restroom is located just before entering the main bar area.
Tip #4: Take a minute to look around at the inside of the building. Look up at the old chandeliers and some of the beautiful detail in the ceiling. Also, take a look at the pictures throughout the building of people that have played shows there before.
If you have seats in the balcony, the stairs to go up will be on your right side just as you are entering the bar area. If you have seats on the main floor, be sure to pay attention to the location (including seat number) on your ticket. There are signs above each entrance door that tell you the specific door to go in to make it easiest to get to your seats.
On the main floor, the front half of the theater can either be set up for all General Admission (standing only), or folding chairs are brought in for a seated show. The back half of the theater has the old fashioned permanent “movie theater” seats.
Tip #5: Seating is tight – both from a width perspective and leg room. As my husband put it at the last concert we went to there, “these seats were built before Americans started overeating and got a lot wider.” So, be prepared to get cozy with your neighbor.
As mentioned above, the acoustics inside the theater are fantastic. So much so, that a lot of people have recorded live albums of the shows done there. Additionally, they have a really good lighting system that adds to the full effect of the show.
The Tower is a great venue. It’s one of those places where you can actually feel the history of some of the shows that have happened there. We saw Temple of the Dog there in the fall of 2016 on the first of two sold-out nights. With the recent death of Chris Cornell, that show (and the building) will always hold a special place in my memories. If you are in the Philadelphia area, it’s definitely somewhere you should check out a show!