The Lost Theatres of LaVilla

March 23, 2016 2 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

During the formative years of Jazz and Blues in America’s late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jacksonville was a major performance venue in this part of the country. Unfortunately, not much is known by the majority of our population because much of this history resides exclusively on the black side of town during the height of the Jim Crow era. Much of this scene took place in the area downtown know as “LaVilla.” With this in mind, here's a brief a look at a few “lost theaters” of LaVilla.

Excelsior Hall

Image of Patrick Chappelle courtesy of Wikipedia

For the first decade of the 1900s, Patrick Chappelle dominated the southeastern United States entertainment scene. The oldest son of Lewis and Annie Chappelle, Patrick Chappelle was born in Jacksonville in 1869. He began his career in the early 1880s, singing and playing guitar at hotels in Florida and along the eastern seaboard. One show’s engagement on a steamboat running between Boston and Nantucket introduced Chappelle to Mr. Benjamin Keith, a gentlemen who was one of nation’s most prestigious vaudeville theatres.

After performing in the vauderville circuit, Chappelle returned to Jacksonville in 1898. Later that year, after successfully launching a pool hall on Bay Street, Chappelle teamed up with his brothers James and Lewis to open the Excelsior Hall. Situated on Bridge Street in LaVilla, the Excelsior was one of the first black-owned theatrical venues in the South. The 500 capacity venue quickly became known for its whiskey and almost cost Chappelle his life in August 1898. Standing outside of his saloon, Chappelle was attacked and almost beaten to death by a mob of men who blamed him for a dosing of patrons inside the saloon with "knockout drops."

A year later, Chappelle closed the Excelsior after a dispute with his landlord and Mayor of Jacksonville, J.E.T. Bowden, moved to Tampa and opened the Buckingham Theatre Saloon near Ybor City. In 1900, Chappelle established The Rabbit's Foot Minstrel Company, a traveling vaudeville show. With at least 75 performers and musicians each season, by 1902, Chappelle had increased his earnings to $1,000 a week. By 1904, Chappelle's LaVilla-based Rabbit's Foot show had expanded to fill three Pullman railroad carriages and had become known as "the leading Negro show in America."

Sanborn map illustrating property owned by Pat Chappelle at 624-626 W. Church Street.

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