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.



Little Savoy Theatre


From left to right: Robert Cole, James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson. Image courtesy of http://songbook1.wordpress.com/fx/si/african-american-musical-theater-1896-1926/shuffle-along1921-mills-hall-galleries/

Walter O'Toole, owner of Bridge Street's O'Toole's Saloon, opened the Little Savoy Theatre at 610 West Forsyth Street on October 3, 1904. O'Toole promoted the Little Savoy as the "handsomest and coziest little theatre for colored performers in the South." Although it remained in business for only two months, the Savoy’s stock companies staged entertainments shared a diverse bill with originally written dramatic sketches and vocal performances.

Entertainment included several dramatic sketches and vocal performances of Bob Cole and John Rosamond Johnson compositions. Although LaVilla's Little Savoy Theatre didn't last long, Cole and Johnson would go on to tour America and Europe with their act. Two of their most successful musicals were The Shoo-Fly Regiment (1906) and The Red Moon (1908). In addition, Rosamond would go on to become a featured player in the first performance by an all-black cast on Broadway.


By 1913, the building that housed Walter O'Toole's Little Savoy Theatre had become a LaVilla pool hall. Today, this site is the drive through lanes for Wells Fargo at Broad and Forsyth Streets.


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