World Cafe Live founder and president Hal Real Brings World Cafe Live at the Queen to Wilmington
Crown Hal Real king for helping to revive the Queen.
Hal Real plays his own baby grand onstage at World Cafe Live at the Queen.
photograph by Jared Castaldi
World Cafe Live founder and president Hal Real points to three female images above the stage of the renovated Queen Theater in Wilmington. They’re all moving, in a way. One perches. One preens. The last seems on the verge of flight. Real stands on the balcony of the new musical cathedral, five weeks before its re-opening, and he playfully mimics all three. The women, he says, are “ghosts” of the Queen.
My first impression of Real—based on his thick résumé
and the fact that he’s an attorney and a business owner—was that he fit into a single category: all business, pinstriped suits, buttoned-down negotiations, contracts, handshakes. What I could not have sensed was his passion. It’s not listed on his résumé. But clearly, Real has the energy and excitement of a child and the soul of an entrepreneur.
He’s 58. He speaks quickly. And he describes his latest project, the World Cafe Live at the Queen, as if it would change Wilmington as we know it. And when you hear him talk about it, you think it just may do that.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“It’s a poster child for urban revitalization.”
“Bring 100,000 people out and turn the lights on, and you change a city permanently.”
After a four-year private and collaborative effort between his Real Entertainment Group, the Buccini/Pollin Group, the City of Wilmington and a long list of corporate, foundation and private donors, Real’s World Cafe Live-Wilmington opened its doors at the restored Queen Theater in April.
The theater is no longer a dream in Real’s mind. It’s a $25 million, 45,000-square-foot palace of grandiosity, an acoustic envelope of sound blended with a clubhouse feel. It’s a place where guests can see new and veteran artists. During its first month, WCL-Wilmington hosted emerging singer Ingrid Michaelson and vets like Aimee Mann. In May the Queen was the site of the annual NON-COMMvention, a three-day conference that hosted more than 30 musical acts who performed before hundreds of radio programmers and music industry leaders.
“I have a very deep-seated belief that music has the power to build bridges and communities,” says Real. “Individually, everyone has songs in their life that have special meaning. The beauty, power and intelligence of music allows people to invest in themselves in ways they don’t normally do. Live music takes this investment to another level.”
Gregory Coin, the chief advancement officer of the Delaware Historical Society, says, “Hal’s a visionary who sees opportunities in areas no one else does.” Real formed a creative partnership with the society, says Coin. “It’s not just perseverance with Hal. It’s inspiration as well.”
The concept of World Cafe Live, which originated in Philadelphia, emerged in 1997, when, in the middle of a sabbatical from business, Real was listening to “The World Cafe” radio show hosted by David Dye. The show inspired him to change the live music experience in Philly. He envisioned a place where there would be clean restrooms, unsurpassed sightlines, crystal-clear acoustics and the opportunity to see a roster of emerging artists and living legends—up close and personal.
Real convinced trustees at the University of Pennsylvania to move its popular radio station, WXPN, to the Hajoca Building, an abandoned pipe factory at the corner of 31st and Walnut streets. This strip of real estate hadn’t experienced foot traffic in decades. Real brokered a deal with WXPN to license the World Cafe name. After WXPN committed, Real’s company chipped in $4.5 million toward the $15 million price tag, and ground was broken in 2002. Since its opening in 2004, WCL-Philadelphia has become an art-deco splendor, housing not only WXPN, but two venues and two restaurants. It hosts more than 500 ticketed events a year.
Real insists that music can transform cities. Tina Betz, cultural affairs director for the city of Wilmington, stands in the balcony of the Queen. She admires the new ceiling, with its circular centerpiece that flickers blue, orange and red. “This building is an example of what’s right with Wilmington,” she says. “Remember, this building used to be an example of everything that was once wrong about this city, and it once ignited naysayers.”
Betz’s reference has served as the elephant in the room for all current revitalization of downtown Wilmington and the many efforts that have gone before it. As WCL-Wilmington becomes the focal point of a new Market Street, it also serves as the conversation piece for thousands of Delawareans, many of whom were raised to believe in the lingering, dyed-in-the-wool assumption that no matter how much money is invested in downtown development, racial stereotypes will trump positive initiatives. There is no denying the long-lingering stigma of its undertones, and it’s one that Real has fought against since the day he first discovered the Queen. It’s a battle he intends to win.
“The truth is, Wilmington has some racial baggage. It’s seen in the images of the boarded-up, segregated city that this population is putting behind them,” Real says. “But there are cities with far worse racial histories who have moved on.”
Real and his wife recently moved to the Christina Landing complex in Wilmington. He’s forming creative partnerships with local organizations. He’s bringing the successful Bridge Sessions to WCL-Wilmington, a program that pairs professional musicians with local kids who have little access to musical education.
“If you look at anyone who is successful,” says Real, “you realize that most of them had one thing in common: They grew up with organized sports and musical education.”
Real wants Wilmingtonians to believe in their city. “I understand the healthy dose of skepticism,” he says, “but now I see people looking at the Queen, not away from it. People are looking at this idea as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take a building that had been dormant for 50 years and light it up again.”