Historic black theaters across the country embrace a second act
At a time when African-Americans were prohibited from patronizing theaters and movie halls in many segregated American cities, a few now-storied spaces were the exception. Entertaining the black audience was their mission.
"I remember going to shows at the Howard Theatre with my sister as a child in middle school during the ’60s,” recalls Sharon Harley, associate professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Maryland. “I saw James Brown and fell in love with James and his whole act, that cape and all.”
Theaters in the African-American community did more than just entertain audiences, however. They birthed an entire renaissance of culture—from music to fashion.
“Places like the Howard were first-class establishments with beautiful ambiances where everyone was finely dressed, from the audience to the performers,” Harley says. “These were far above the typical juke joints and nightclubs where black musicians often performed, and they had a certain cultural and social ilk about them that made you feel special to be there.”
It was on these theaters’ stages that performers such as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Redd Foxx made their mark. Black theaters offered future legends both a stage and an adoring crowd when other theaters turned them away.
Eventually, shifting demographics and integration caused the bright lights on scores of historic black marquees to dim. The Howard struggled to maintain its former grandeur after the 1968 race riots devastated its Washington, D.C., neighborhood, and the theater, like so many across the country, was forced to close its doors for decades. But the venue hadn’t taken its final curtain call, and neither had others. The Ritz Theatre in Jacksonville, Fla., Walker Theatre in Indianapolis, the Apollo in New York, and the three featured here are just some that have communities making determined efforts to preserve the brick-and-mortar buildings as well as the memories of their gloried pasts. In these theaters’ second acts, they continue to leave an indelible footprint on the communities that have always been their homes.
The 102-year-old Howard Theatre, for example, reopened to much fanfare in April. At the corner of Seventh and T in D.C.'s Shaw neighborhood, the Howard is only a short walk from the Howard University campus. But it wasn’t just proximity that made weekend matinees a common destination for Bettye Gardner and her fellow Howard classmates during the early 1960s.
“The Howard Theatre was my first introduction to many of the top performers like Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, and Gladys Knight,” says Gardner, who served as a consultant during the theater's restoration.
Going to the Howard was a part of growing up for generations of Washingtonians.
At its opening in August 1910, the Howard was the first major theater built for African-Americans in the world. Billed as the “Theatre for the People,” it thrived in the neighborhood as part of a vibrant “Black Broadway.” Its live music, plays, vaudeville shows, movies, and talent contests drew audiences and performers from the city and across the country.
Virtually every top black entertainer performed on its stage, including Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ike and Tina Turner, and native Washingtonian Marvin Gaye. It was during a Motown tour at the Howard in 1962 that The Supremes made their stage debut. Ella Fitzgerald won an amateur night contest there.
As grand as the Howard’s nightly lineup of performers was, the theater itself left a huge impression. With its windowed façade, it boasted a large, extravagant interior with 1,200 seats, a balcony, and eight boxes.
“In terms of its body and size, it made a major statement,” says Chip Ellis, CEO of Ellis Development Group, which led the Howard Theatre restoration project.
Ellis points out that the Howard is nearly 25 years older than the Apollo in Harlem, which was once a burlesque theater that did not allow African-Americans through its doors. “But at the Howard, blacks were long being entertained with Shakespearean plays and vaudeville performances,” he says.
Audiences enjoyed performances at the Howard for more than five decades, but the 1968 race riots led to neighborhood decline, and the theater struggled to attract major acts. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 but was forced to close in 1980. It sat vacant for the next 30 years.
In 2010, the year of the theater's 100th anniversary, Ellis joined Howard Theatre Restoration, Inc., to launch the venue's rebirth.
“Not many people wanted to touch the project because they didn’t see how it could add any real benefit to the community,” recalls Ellis, adding that people were failing to recognize the value of the $150 million office and residential project being developed next door.
Restoring the Howard, Ellis admits, was no easy task. By the time restoration efforts began, the theater was completely dilapidated from more than three decades of water damage. The building was almost too far gone to save. “We caught it in the last minute,” says Ellis.
The $29 million project has included replicating the façade’s original 1910 appearance, which meant uncovering windows bricked over during a renovation. The 30,000-square-foot interior incorporates a modern design with two audience configurations: supper club seating for 650 and standing room for 1,100. It features a $2 million state-of-the-art acoustic system, 10-foot video screens, curving black walnut walls,and a gourmet kitchen.
The wide-ranging performance schedule for the debut year includes The Roots, Chuck Berry, and Chaka Khan. A full Southern-style brunchwill feature the Harlem Gospel Choir every Sunday afternoon.
A planned 1,000-square-foot museum and gift shop will showcase photos and videos of artists who graced the stage in years past. An educational center and recording studio are also in the works.
“We wanted to create an art destination,” Ellis says. “And we’ve built the facility for the 21st century.”
The goal of the restoration is to preserve the Howard Theatre history, and Ellis hopes it will be a place of pride for people of the District of Columbia: “We want to educate people on the importance of the Howard and offer a place where they can experience a new generation of artists.”
The concept of providing a venue for emerging artists alongside the day’s top performers isn’t a new one for black theaters. Philadelphia’s Uptown Theatre helped launch the music careers of The Jackson 5, James Brown, and Aretha Franklin.
“It was the hottest ticket in Philadelphia,” says Linda Waters Richardson, president of the Uptown Entertainment and Development Corporation, which acquired the Uptown in 2002. “Everyone who was up-and-coming in rhythm and blues was highlighted at the Uptown, and the uniqueness was that the shows brought together people from all neighborhoods of the city.”
But the Uptown wasn’t always a venue for the trendiest new sounds. When the theater opened in 1929, it was a glamorous 50,000-square-foot movie theater serving the predominately Eastern European and Jewish population that lived in the neighborhood surrounding Broad Street.
By the 1950s, as the neighborhood became home to more African-American residents, the Uptown’s owners decided to feature fewer movies and open the stage to black performers, partnering with Philadelphia’s famous disc jockey Georgie Woods—a move that ushered in decades of now-famous live music performances.
Woods, known affectionately as “the guy with the goods,” was a fixture on Philadelphia radio during the 1950s and ’60s, introducing rhythm and blues to listeners across the city.
“As teenagers we would listen to his daily radio show and it would just captivate us,” Richardson remembers.
As Woods played the music of up-and-coming young performers on his show and invited them to perform at the Uptown, he became legendary for recognizing talented artists long before they became famous.
Deeply involved in the civil rights movement, Woods was the first to invite Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to speak in the city, recalls Richardson. And his connections were far-reaching.
“When Dick Clark wanted to find artists for his television show, American Bandstand, he consulted with Woods to see what group he should book,” Richardson says.
Following the fate of many other black theaters, the Uptown was later forced to close because of its neighborhood’s changing socioeconomic landscape. It had been abandoned since the mid-1990s when Richardson’s organization began researching potential neighborhood revitalization projects. Neighbors asked that the theater be included in the efforts.
After the building had been stabilized, the second phase of the restoration project began, which included preserving the structure and six-story tower, renovating office space, and restoring architectural details. “The Uptown’s façade features terra-cotta tiles that are a fixture of its Art Deco design,” Richardson says.
“We’re trying to provide an opportunity for young emerging artists, producers, and performers to have the same kind of experience that those of us of a certain age had at the Uptown,” Richardson explains. The building will also offer space for rent: Proposed tenants include a catering company, a record production facility, and a technology center.
A similar multipurpose vision was the genesis of the Morton Theatre, in Athens, Ga. It was 1909, and Monroe Bowers “Pink” Morton dreamed of a “high-class place” where blacks could be entertained. The downtown corner of Washington and Hull streets—already the business center of African-American life—was the perfect spot.
As the son of a white father and a mother who was a former slave, Morton got his nickname, Pink, because of his light complexion. He had little formal education but became an established contractor and one of the South’s wealthiest black men.
Construction wasn’t his only talent. Morton owned more than 25 buildings throughout the region, served as the Athens postmaster for five years, and owned and published the local black newspaper, the Progressive Era.
“He was a true renaissance man for any time,” says Lynn Battle Green, Morton Theatre’s rental coordinator and box office manager.
When the new four-story brick Morton building was complete, the suites throughout became home to many of Athens’ black professionals, including doctors, dentists, pharmacists, and insurance salesmen.
“The Morton Building was referred to as the largest building to be built, owned, and operated by a colored man in all the world,” says Green. But what she calls the “crown jewel” of the building was the theater itself.
The Morton Theatre sat on the second and third floors, with seating for up to 700 people. With its grand interior and horseshoe-shaped balcony, the theater garnered much attention from patrons in Athens and the surrounding counties, and the audience soon became diverse as white residents mixed with blacks to see such popular entertainers as Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.
“The Morton was special because it was one of the few places in Athens or this region where both blacks and whites could come together in one place,” Green says.
After interest in vaudeville and live performers waned in the 1930s, the Morton functioned as a movie house until a fire on the second floor led to the theater’s closure in 1954. Businesses throughout the building, however, stayed open for several more years.
In 1979, the Morton Building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places but was still in danger of being condemned until concerned citizens formed the Morton Theatre Corporation and purchased the building in 1981. The Athens government stepped in with a sales tax referendum that provided $1.8 million for the theater’s renovation, and it reopened as a community performing arts center and rental facility in 1993.
Today, most renters are nonprofit organizations that host fundraising events, live musical concerts, dramas, and church services. The Morton remains a vital part of the city’s cultural scene.
In the past year, the Morton has undergone another transformation. The building’s façade has been repainted, new double-pane windows have been installed, and the theater’s signature balcony and hardwood floor were both reconstructed. The entire auditorium was also cleaned and repainted “from the pressed tin ceiling to the baseboard,” says Green.
“The Morton Theatre holds a very important part of black history in Athens,” Green adds. “Our main goal is to make sure the legacy of the theater is not forgotten.”
]Preserving the legacies of these theaters, though, is as much about ensuring their futures as remembering their histories. Together, these places are an invaluable touchstone for an important era in our nation’s history. That they haven’t been subjected to the wrecking ball—as many other buildings of their time have— is a true testament to their significance, says Wendy Hacker, who’s producing an upcoming documentary, “Historic Black Theaters,” with her Loose Threads Cinema production company.
Hacker adds another reason why these historic theaters are special: “During the era of segregation, theaters in black communities provided one of the few forms of secular entertainment available,” she says. “It’s where families went together, where singles met their future spouses, and, most importantly, where African-American citizens could enjoy themselves free from the indignities of segregation.”
In towns where historic theaters have been lost, people talk wistfully about the theater that was—the glitz of sold-out shows, walking along Black Broadway, and coming together as a community to be entertained.
For theaters that have been restored, their reopenings have been like welcoming home an old friend. “No one wanted to see these theaters close their doors,” says University of Maryland’s Harley, “and for blacks who remember the good old days, we’re glad to see them open again.”