Trocadero Theatre, Philadelphia



In its 135 years, the Trocadero stage has hosted everyone from Gypsy Rose Lee to Nas.

Animal house of rock.

By Amy Phillips
Photos by Nathan Sherman

Walk into the entryway of Philadelphia’s Trocadero Theatre, and the first thing you’ll see is a big sign declaring “NO MOSHING, CROWD SURFING, STAGE DIVING.”

But as attendees of its all-ages punk shows will attest, that’s exactly the behavior that’s made the Chinatown venue one of Philly’s most beloved live music institutions. The City of Brotherly Love is known for its boisterous fans, and the Trocadero Theater has been providing them with a place to get rowdy for over a century.

The Trocadero is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places; the oldest Victorian theater in America that is still operational. Built in 1870 as the Arch Street Opera House, it hosted minstrel shows and vaudeville acts until the 1920s, when it became a burlesque house and movie palace, and was renamed the Trocadero. Dancers like Gypsy Rose Lee and Blaze Starr performed there, and the theater remained one of the most sinful places in the city until it closed in 1978. In 1979, owner Stephen Pang reopened the Trocadero as a Chinese cultural center. Its current incarnation as a live music venue dates back to 1986, with Pang’s daughter, Joanna, running the day-to-day operations since 1996.

No Time For Touch-Ups
The Trocadero’s history is ingrained in its structure. A regal space full of ornate detailing, it looks more like a place that hosts black-tie events than raucous rock concerts. Two old-fashioned bars sit in the back of the 1,200-capacity main room, and a majestic curtain hangs down above the 30’ x 30’ stage. The ceiling above the main room is domed, with a large hole in the middle. “We like to tell people that it’s a giant speaker,” jokes special events coordinator Cybele Perry. “But it’s really part of a plenum, which is a Victorian ventilation system.” The main room includes two balconies, one of which is accessible via its own separate entrance and staircase. “Legend has it that’s because of segregation,” Perry explains. “One group would pay five cents to go through the main doors and be seated on the floor or in the first balcony. The other group would pay a penny and have to walk all the way up to the top.”

That top balcony offers a glimpse of the Trocadero of the past. The original Victorian-era benches and floorboards remain in place, and the ceiling is low enough to touch. Although this balcony offers a breathtaking view of the stage, as well as what sound engineer Will Bartlett describes as “the best sound in the place,” it is currently closed to the public. Perry says, “We have the money to renovate the second balcony and restore the ceiling, but we don’t have the time. We would have to close the club for three months.”

The Troc books 250 events a year, so such a project would come at a significant loss. In 1996, after a raid by the city’s Licenses and Inspections Department, the theater underwent its most extensive remodeling project to date. The bathrooms and the first balcony were refurbished, an eight-unit air conditioning system was installed and the sound board was replaced. The stained-glass windows in the entryway and the elaborate moldings above the stage were also restored.

The elegant Victorian theater goes from corporate to punk with equal grace.

Old Structure, New Forms
The most dramatic aspect of the 1996 remodel was the creation of The Balcony, a new venue on the second floor of the Trocadero. Located behind the main room’s first balcony, the space was formerly a seedy dive with a trough located underneath the barstools, so that “the men didn’t actually have to get up to go to the bathroom,” according to Perry. Now a 225-capacity room with its own bar, stage, PA and monitor system, The Balcony hosts shows by local bands and up-and-coming touring acts.

While The Balcony’s events are exclusively for the over-21 crowd, the main room mostly puts on all-ages concerts. “During all-ages shows, the bars on the main floor sell snacks and soda, and we put the bouncer checking IDs in front of the stairs going up to the balcony,” Perry says. “But if it’s the kind of show that we know will attract mostly kids, we open up the balcony to everybody.”

Because of the Trocadero’s age, the building must be handled with care. “Sponsors always want to hang big banners on the walls, but we don’t let them, because the walls are fragile. We end up doing a lot of advertising with lights.” The main room’s lighting system, which includes High End Systems Technobeams and ETC Source Four fixtures, isn’t attached to the walls. Instead, the fixtures rest on two balcony rail positions and two line sets above the stage. A spotlight is located in the center of the top balcony.

Throughout its history as a live music venue, the Trocadero has primarily booked punk, alternative, metal and hard rock acts. However, that began to change last year, when the Troc’s longtime in-house booking agent left to work for concert promotions behemoth Clear Channel, and the club formed an alliance with one of Clear Channel’s competitors, House of Blues. Looking to expand the Trocadero’s demographics, House of Blues began booking more rap, adult-contemporary and Latin rock acts. “We’ve had nothing but good experiences with House of Blues so far,” Bartlett says. “I used to work at their Chicago club, and I know that they truly care about the music above all else. They’ve helped us reach all kinds of new audiences.”

  Local and national bands alike delight in stickering up the Troc.  

Personality Goes A Long Way
In addition to concerts, the Trocadero also hosts free film screenings once a week on “Movie Mondays.” The theater’s original movie screen is pulled down in front of the stage, and customers enjoy the films – mostly comedies and cult flicks. The club is also closed two or three times a month for private events, which have included everything from corporate parties to weddings to awards shows. “We even held a wake for a burlesque dancer recently,” Perry says.

Maintaining a century-old space as an active, competitive live music venue isn’t easy, particularly with crowds as notoriously rambunctious as the Trocadero’s. But both performers and audiences are quite respectful towards the historic theater. “Even though only the façade is listed on the National Registry of Historic places, we tell everybody that it’s the entire place,” Perry says with a laugh. “That makes them behave. And I think people really appreciate the Troc’s character. It’s not just another anonymous room.”

Front of House

8 - EAW KF750 three-way speakers
8 - Electro-Voice T18 subwoofers
4 - Crown MA-5002VZ amplifiers
2 - Crown MA-602 amplifiers
2 - Crown MA-2402 amplifiers
2 - PreSonus ACP8 gate/compressors
1 - BSS Audio FCS-960 30-band graphic EQ
1 - BSS Audio FDS-366 OmniDrive crossover
1 - Lexicon PCM 70 effects processor
1 - Soundcraft K3 Theater mixing console
1 - TC Electronic M2000 effects processor
1 - TC Electronics D-Two multitap delay

10 - Shure SM58 vocal mics
9 - Shure SM57 instrument mics
5 - Electro-Voice ND308 instrument mics
4 - Shure KSM109 condenser mics
3 - Shure Beta58A supercardioid vocal mics
1 - Electro-Voice RE20 cardioid wired mic
1 - Shure Beta 52A kick drum mic

7 - EAW SM15 monitors
7 - Rane GE 60 graphic equalizers
4 - dbx DriveRack PA processors
2 - JBL SR4725X two-ways
2 - JBL SR4718X subwoofers
1 - EAW SM15 drum monitor
1 - Spirit by Soundcraft Monitor II console

6 - High End Systems Technobeam luminaires
6 - PAR64 washes
4 - ETC Source Four lighting fixtures
1 - Leprecon LP-1536 lighting console
1 - Martin LightJockey controller


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Copyright 2005 Club Systems International Magazine
Copyright 2005 TESTA Communications