In 1976, we inherited mixed audiences from the operator who preceded us: a largely white suburban population — that had moved out of our neighborhood to newer subdivisions on the South Shore of Staten Island — and a mixed local white and black population, who kept, at times, an uneasy peace with one another. On April 7 of our theater year, we opened, ironically, with Mel Brooks’ still-controversial Blazing Saddles, a satire about race that Brooks admits he probably couldn’t make today. The American worm of racial attitude was just beginning to change, and thanks to what we were learning about our audiences, we were changing too, walking toward the light.
Last year a friend sent me a wonderful article on the city of Birmingham (Alabama) and its theater restorations: another revitalization story, thrilling! Any theater saved is a welcome miracle; but surprise! Two of the theaters listed as restored were black houses, during the Jim Crow era. Reading about them, I got all excited and googled BLACK THEATERS RESTORED. Then, AFRICAN AMERICAN THEATERS RESTORED. Okay, I found a few, and there’s always the compelling story of the Apollo on 125th Street in Harlem.
But like so much else having to do with things black and white in America, results in the black column are a little disappointing. There just aren’t that many. I’m sure it’s a tale of bucks: it can take as much as fifty million dollars and, working on the fast track, five years, to restore a run-down theater, even a small one, according to Jerry Martinez of Martinez and Johnson, an architectural firm out of D.C. It’s about deep pockets and lots of time, and donors able to give. These things are scarce everywhere, but can be doubly hard to come by in black communities.
Still, despite discouragements, I present a few tales of black theater restoration; with time, may there be more.
The previously-mentioned Lincoln Theatre in Bessemer, Alabama comes to mind first. The Lincoln, has been bought and is being slowly restored by Andre Holland of Moonlight, who remembers this movie house from his boyhood, apparently not as a theater he attended, but as a vacant space next to a local barbershop, that was, nonetheless, filled with memories for most of the older people he knew. Since last year, The Holland Project has received at least two sizable grants, one for facade work, and is proceeding with plenty of support. A Cinema Treasures entry reflects how neglected it was until Holland came along. He notes, "It's good for people — particular young people — to have something to be proud of in their neighborhood... The Lincoln was [before 1964] the only movie theatre you could go to. Everyone who went has memories of it. They remember first dates there, they remember the titles of all the movies they saw." A 400-seat theater built in 1948, the Lincoln has a balcony — likely in a stadium configuration — and orchestra, and functioned until around 1970. Before Holland entered, there were two other Lincoln enthusiasts who got the ball of restoration rolling forward: Jake Bivona, a local attorney and “big movie fan” formed the Lincoln Phoenix Project back in 2013, apparently enlisting the efforts of an actor and filmmaker, Kevin Wayne, best known for his role in The Magnificent 7. Wayne shot a documentary, which has never had a showing. Now that the Holland Project is on the way, he may post it, in its entirety, on YouTube. One thing is clear; when the Lincoln is complete it will offer both movies and live acts and give a needed boost to Bessemer’s sad downtown — so much of what theater restoration is all about.
The Howard Theater in Washington, D.C. is the oldest African American theater in the U.S., predating even the Apollo. Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, Aretha Franklin and a number of other performers have graced its stage. Martinez (quoted earlier) recalls that the Howard was in pretty dismal shape, “...It had been vacant for decades when we started work on it. It was a solid building, but the interior was totally gone. The only thing that was left was the shape of the proscenium and the shape of the balcony.”
The Howard opened in August, 1910, a legitimate/Vaudeville house, its facade done in Beaux-Arts, Neo-Classical, and Italian Renaissance styles. Apollo, at the top of the facade, played his lyre over T Street, while the inside featured a copious balcony with eight boxes and a proper number of dressing rooms. Not surprisingly, the Howard Players from nearby Howard University often took the stage, as well as the Lafayette Players.
The ups and downs of the Howard mirror the trials of many palatial theaters from the thirties into the bad old seventies. Serving mostly black audiences, and, beginning in the early Depression, black movies, like Herb Jeffries cowboy flicks, along with live acts, the theater was a hot spot, attracting top talent like Lena Horne, and offering competitions, like its rival, the Apollo, in New York. During WWII, it hosted a number of balls, attended by Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and, in these instances, offered the likes of Abbott and Costello and Danny Kaye, in addition to popular black performers.
Though management was black, the theater seems always to have been owned by white management companies, during its serious working years. These companies faded away by the fifties, when the Howard went Rock and Blues. Beyond the fall of single-screen movie theaters, two things did the Howard in: ironically, desegregation, and the riots of the late sixties. It served briefly as a church, then simply closed, despite its designation on the National Historic Register.
Its recent re-opening in 2012 after a full restoration by Martinez and Johnson, have given the Howard renewed purpose, recalling its peak during wartime. As the theater’s website observes, “When the nation was deeply divided by segregation, The Howard Theatre provided a place where color barriers blurred and music unified. The Washington Bee dubbed it the ‘Theatre for The People’...the place where dignitaries, like President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the First Lady gathered with everyday folks to see both superstars and rising stars...” Billy Eckstine, Billy Taylor, the Ink Spots, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Chuck Brown, Aretha Franklin, Dizzy Gilespie, Dick Gregory, Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley (I haven’t even gotten started) either debuted there, or used the Howard as a touchstone for their careers. Like the Apollo and the Cotton Club in Harlem, the Howard seems to have survived and prospered by vaulting over the impediment of segregation.
Finally, here’s a brief nod to the Carver Performing Arts Center in Birmingham, a city on fire — in the good sense — with theater restoration. The Carver Theatre was an African American cinema, opened in 1935 with roughly five hundred seats. Recent restoration has made it, among other things, the new home of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame Museum. The theater’s location in what is considered the Birmingham Civil Rights District probably made restoration a must-do for local civic officials, and a good thing too.
If single-screen theaters of all kinds suffered vacancy and neglect in the seventies, from a combination of multi-plexing and television, then other factors, like white flight (which one way or another has never gone away), and the desegregation of public places, put additional pressure on black theaters coast-to-coast. Fortunately, people of all backgrounds love their local theaters, and there’s always someone willing to fight to preserve, restore or rebuild them.
- I didn’t include more than a nod to the Apollo in this post, as it seems such an obvious example of a black theater with a fascinating past, but if you want to read a little about it, here’s a good treatment.
- For a glimpse at how the neighborhood near the Howard (and its sister, Howard University) has gentrified, read this.
- For a glimpse of life in the balcony of a segregated theater and full discussion of black theaters before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, don’t miss this NPR discussion.