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.

The Globe Theatre

Frank Crowd, a prominent Jacksonville-based barber and shooting gallery owner, opened the Bijou Theater on July 19, 1908. Occupying a new three story building at 615 West Ashley Street, the 218-seat theater featured silent films as its primary attraction. The first feature length motion picture ever produced was, "The Story of Moses" was shown at the Bijou. A few months later, Kalem Studio's "The Artist and the Girl", one of the earliest films produced in Jacksonville, made it to the Bijou's screen. By May 1909, Crowd had expanded the Bijou with a stage for vaudeville shows.

However, facing too much competition from the new Colored Airdome next door, Crowd closed the Bijou in 1909. Down but not out, Crowd invested $25,000 into his theatre adding new inclined floors, a balcony, private boxes and an all-tungsten lighting system. On January 17, 1910 he reopened as the Globe Theatre. In addition, the team of Rainey and Rainey joined Crowd's Globe Stock Company that January. At the time, Ma Rainey (Gertrude Pridgett Rainey) was billed as a “coon shouter” and the attraction of her powerful moan was undeniable. It was observed that she was receiving three or four encores every night. By the end of her career, Ma Rainey had become billed as "The Mother of the Blues", making several recordings with influential jazz figure Louis Armstrong.

During its heyday, the Globe was acknowledged as the "anchor to the southern road shows and its Russell-Owens stock company was one of the most influential pioneering African-American theatrical stock companies in the country. Like its popular neighbor, the Colored Airdome, changing times eventually sent the Globe into a downward spiral and by 1916, its doors were closed. However, unlike most historical buildings in town, the Globe still stands. In 1934, the vacant building became the new home of the Clara White Mission.

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