When World Café Live at the Queen Theater opened in Wilmington in 2011, there were plenty of local naysayers who thought the revitalized entertainment venue would never make it. To many city residents, the idea that the area of 5th & Market streets could be revitalized seemed like a joke.
But five years later, on April Fool’s Day, ironically enough, the joke was on the doubters, as music lovers packed the historic building for a Free at Noon concert with Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals.
Standing on the third floor balcony, with his eyes glued to the Downstairs Live stage, Hal Real, owner and founder of World Café Live, beamed with pride.
“This is great, ya know? This really is great to see. All that hard work coming to fruition like this,” Real said as his iPhone constantly pinged with alerts and friends and fans swung by to offer hellos and congratulatory handshakes. Five years in, both the Queen and Market Street are in the throes of a renaissance.
“We were recruited to be a catalyst to help turn Wilmington around, and there were a lot of cynics saying this would never work or never happen,” Real said in an interview prior to Friday’s day-long celebration. “So it’s very gratifying to have survived the first five years and now look forward to thriving in the next five years.”
Senator Tom Carper, working abroad in China, helped to kick off the festivities Friday, with a dedication he recorded halfway around the world. Carper has been a very vocal supporter of the Queen Theater and its importance to Wilmington, even throwing his own 65th birthday at the theater back in 2012.
“I love the Queen; it has helped provide excitement and vibrancy for the city, and it has thrived as the city of Wilmington has thrived,” Carper said. “To Hal Real, the staff and everyone at XPN 88.5, my congratulations on a great five years and five more. Rock on.”
In its first five years of rebirth, the Queen, a theater that had previously sat dormant and decaying since 1959, has hosted more than 1,800 concerts, featuring nationally touring acts like Alabama Shakes, Grace Potter and Psychedelic Furs. Additionally, the theater has been home to more than 950 special events, from community fundraisers to weddings and bar mitvahs.
“When we opened World Café Live in West Philly in 2004, the neighborhood was in bad shape. Now it’s probably one of the fastest growing neighborhoods in the city,” Real said. “That was our goal here, once we fell in love with Wilmington and met her majesty, the Queen. We wanted to serve as a catalyst for a renaissance, while sticking to the idea that we want to be a clubhouse for the community.”
That clubhouse mentality has helped to bring members of Wilmington’s music scene together on an annual basis, in the form of the Shine A Light concert every February. Fifty or more local musicians pick a rock ‘n roll theme or year (in 2016 they focused on artists and songs from 1976) and throw a huge fundraising show.
Rob Grant, a mortgage banker and guitarist for local rock band, The Cameltones,” has been a big part of the Shine A Light series. The concert has raised more than $300,000 for the Light Up The Queen Foundation, which focuses on community events and music programming for inner city children.
“I think the Queen has been a good place to play because it’s really a viable venue that you can book,” Grant said. “It works well economically for musicians, the people there are really nice people to work with, the atmosphere is great, and they’ve done a lot of outreach for musicians and have made it easy for us.”
Real said that events like the Shine A Light show is where the Queen can make its mark on visitors to the city. While the perception that Market Street is unsafe after 5 p.m. still persists, Real and his staff are fighting that notion by using events as a way to get people to come downtown.
“We’re a confusing concept in that we host music, we’re a restaurant, and we do events. But it’s the events portion that is the real Trojan Horse of this operation,” Real said. “If you get invited to a wedding or corporate function, you pretty much have to attend. While we have you here, we try and impress you with how easy it is to get in and out of the city, convenient parking, and our fun atmosphere. We figure that if people experience that once, they’ll come back for live shows and events.”
Will Minster, Director of Business Development for Downtown Visions, a local non-profit focusing on small business recruitment, marketing and promotion in Wilmington, has seen the direct effect the Queen’s presence has had on the landscape of Market Street.
“I’ll give them credit, World Café Live has really stuck with it. They’ve been committed to Market Street since before they even opened their doors, and you can seen the new businesses that have opened as a result,” Minster said, pointing out nearby spots like LOMA Coffee at 239 North Market and La Fia Bakery + Market + Bistro at 4291 North Market.
The entire strip was teeming with activity Friday for the Queen’s 5th anniversary. Fans were lined up around the block, stretching down 5th to King Street by 11:45 a.m. Once inside, they were treated to the Free at Noon show, which was broadcast live on 88.5, as well as a lineup of beers from local breweries.
Specially concocted for the Queen’s 5th, the list looked like a who’s who of local breweries, including the Keller Riffs Kellerbier (an unfiltered pilsner) from Two Stones, the Alternate Take Tropical IPA from Dogfish Head, the WCL IPA from Yards, the 16 Ohms on a Deadman’s Chest Porter from Fordham, and the House on Hefe Hill Hefeweizen from Mispillion. Each beer costs $5 and would be served on tap at the Queen throughout the week, while supplies last.
In looking at what the next five years might hold for the Queen and Market Street, Real is confident that more homegrown and Delaware-based businesses will arrive to fill out the open spaces. As he put it, Market Street “has a heart and a mind” that will work together to create a vibrant setting.
“We have the Delaware College of Art and Design and the Delaware Historical Society and the Christina Cultural Arts Center, as well as the Queen, the Grand and the Playhouse,” Real said. “When you look at all those attractions, combined with great places to eat and shop, I think this is going to be an area that will be attractive to small businesses and even millennials looking to branch out on their own.”
The Queen saw a packed house for the Ben Harper show Friday, and a crow that included retirees and millennials from all backgrounds. The diverse audience of business people, musicians, artists and residents who took a half-day from work served as a microcosm of the vibe Real and his staff have strived to establish.