From its new nightly street performers to its renowned theater and concert performances, the Avenue of the Arts is alive and well in Philadelphia. And this weekend — for its 30th anniversary — Avenue of the Arts, Inc. is celebrating in style with a special gala at the W Philadelphia hotel.
The event will honor past creators Gov. Ed Rendell, Judge Marjorie Rendell, Dr. Bernard C. Watson, as well as local Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Tony nominee James Ijames. Somewhere in-between those poles, vocal giant Russell Thompkins, Jr. of The Stylistics and members of BalletX, Opera Philadelphia, the Academy of Vocal Arts and The Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz & Performing Arts will hit the stage as well.
Along with handing out Visionary Awards and listening to Thompkins’ rich falsetto, guests will be treated to sneak peeks of Avenue 2.0 — a plan steered by Gensler, a global architecture firm with goals including a unified street aesthetic, activated pedestrian spaces and traffic calming measures.
Yes, that means working to put a stop to wild ATV riders, with the aid of City Hall.
“Absolutely,” said Dianne Semingson, Board Chair, Avenue of the Arts, Inc. “Mayor Kenney has been very supportive in helping with funding and understanding how important the Avenue of the Arts is to the economy and the quality of life in Philadelphia. The city is very committed to reducing the noise and any potential harm.”
When Semingson saw the Avenue of the Arts’ 30th anniversary approaching, she knew a large-scale celebration was in order, one that dedicated itself to tributes to Ijames — “a genuine marvel of Philadelphia arts… recognizing such Philly talent as this, one out of the Wilma, gives me goosebumps,” says Semingson — and the Rendells. It is also an opportunity to celebrate the future — specifically what the block is set to become in the hands of the Gensler architecture design team.
“This gala could truly be the launch for a new vision of the Avenue, as we proceed to welcome visitors for the 250th Independence Day, along with the World Cup and the MLB All-Star Game — all coming to Philly in 2026,” she said. “If you’re in Philadelphia, then, you’re going to be on the Avenue. So it needs to be clean, safe and welcoming. If we want to be center stage, our main-street has to be in tip-top shape – the creative economic engine here is a $4.1 billion industry, and the Avenue of the Arts plays a huge part in this, and making sure such an engine continues to run.”
The 2008 recession and pandemic steered many audience members away from entertainment venues, so Semingson knows there is a tall mountain to climb when making sure the Avenue stays strong.
“Our new vision plan will feature a unified street aesthetic so that people will know that they are on the Avenue of the Arts. We want greening along the curbs and medians – more flowers, more artwork.”
And as far as this weekend’s celebration, Semingson wants Avenue of the Arts’ 30th anniversary to dazzle the senses.
“I want everyone who attends the gala to be upbeat and invigorated by the potential of what this city holds, what the Avenue of the Arts holds,” she said.
Avenue of the Arts 30th Anniversary Gala will take place Friday, Oct. 6, from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. at W Philadelphia, 1439 Chestnut St. For more information, visit avenueofthearts.org/gala
“We all wanted to sing the songs of Philadelphia”
Metro sits down with Stylistics’ Russell Thompkins, Jr. to talk more.
As for Philly talent, Avenue of the Arts and beyond, there is none higher — literally when you consider his angelic falsetto — than Russell Thompkins, Jr., the lead voice of the legendary Stylistics, and currently the frontman of his own, New Stylistics.
Considering his past of street corner harmony groups such as The Monarchs, whose membership joined up with The Percussions to form The Stylistics in 1969, Thompkins reminisced about his glee club days and talent shows times between Vox Junior High School and Benjamin Franklin High.
“The Monarchs actually beat The Percussions in a talent show,” recalled Thompkins, laughing.
Once becoming The Stylistics, Thompkins and Co. set about having local hits in 1969 until they hooked up with Sound of Philadelphia co-creator/composer Thom Bell and local lyricist Linda Creed to create a lush sound for smash hits across the globe.
“The president of AVCO Records told me to go down to the old brewery building at Broad and Locust and meet this guy, Bell,” said Thompkins. “I had no idea who he was. Then I realized that Tommy was the guy behind all of this hit music like The Delfonics. … We got into the studio, immediately starting cutting records and made magic. It was just the right combination of people meeting people, and singing that music at the right time. Things just gelled.”
Thompkins said that his hometown, Philadelphia, was a huge part of making things gel — with The Stylistics, music, even working with University of the Arts students for the Ave of the Arts gala.
“I come from North Philly and a block where everybody sang,” he said proudly. “All I wanted to do was play basketball, but music kept jumping up – even when I tried to run from it. What happened to me happened to 100 other guys in this town, corner-to-corner, block-to-block. We all wanted to sing the songs of Philadelphia. Philadelphia just has this music thing. Still does. Now, however, I don’t try to run from it.”