The Lost Theatres of LaVilla
Published March 23, 2016 in History
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.
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.
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.
The Colored Airdome
1913 Sanborn map illustrating the location of the Colored Airdome and Globe Theatre at W. Ashley and N. Broad Streets.
On May 4, 1909, Lionel D. Joel and Mr. Glickstein opened the Colored Airdome Theater on a lot next door to Frank Crowd's Bijou Theater at 601 West Ashley Street. They claimed their $5,000 open-air theatre was "positively the largest, grandest and coolest theatre exclusively for colored people in the entire Southland." Featuring over 800 seats, the Airdome booked its acts directly from New York, Chicago, and Boston. Tickets were sold for 10 cents and advertisements clearly stated, "Exclusively for Colored People." The Airdome's opening night included an orchestra led by Eugene F. Mikell, music director for the Cookman Institute.
Definitely the hit envisioned by owners Joel and Glickstein, the popular theatre quickly became known for its nightly standing room only audiences. Performances included "Mr. Joplin's Ragtime Dance" and the "Jacksonville Rounder's Dance." Since 'rounder' meant pimp, it was later renamed "The Original Black Bottom Dance." Other popular acts included Petrona Lazzo, the "Cuban soubrette" and "Chinese impersonator" Coy Herndon and comedian Slim Henderson.
The Colored Airdome would also go on to put Jacksonville on the map during the formative years of a new genre when it was identified as the location of the first published account of blues singing on a public stage. The John W.F. Woods performance took place on April 16, 1910. The end of the Colored Airdome can possibly be traced back to 1912, when the women's clubs of Jacksonville persuaded the mayor to ban all theaters, vaudeville shows and movies to close on Sundays. By 1915, the Colored Airdome was no more.
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.
H.S. Walker's Strand Amusement Company opened the Strand Theater opened on June 12, 1915 to a crowd of patrons at 701 West Ashley Street. Opening night entertainment was provided by the Russell-Owens Stock Company. In addition, the night featured an orchestra lead under the direction of former A. G. Allen Minstrel Company bandleader King Philips.
The Strand was known as one of the earliest examples of a theatre utilizing multimedia integration. However, by 1916, the Pennsylvania and the New York Central Railroads were already successfully drawing LaVilla residents and black workers away from Jacksonville due to the negative social effects of "Jim Crow" laws.
Despite the area's changing economic demographics, the Strand became one of the original theaters on the Theatrical Owners Booking Agency (T.O.B.A.) circuit. After the opening of the Ritz Theatre in 1929, the Strand's era as LaVilla's main vaudeville theatre came to an end.
Eventually, the 900-seat, one screen theatre was converted into a motion-pitcure house and operated by National Theatre Enterprises. The Strand was closed down in December 1968 after National Theatre Enterprises failed to renew its lease. Less than a year later, the building was demolished in November 1969 after suffering significant fire damage.
Sanborn map illustrating the location of the Frolic (741 W. Ashley) and Strand (701 W. Ashley) theatres.
The Frolic Theatre opened in 1925 and was owned and operated by Gus Seligman. Featuring a single screen with a seating capacity of 1,000, the Frolic Theatre was said to be the largest and best equipped colored motion picture theatre in the south. Located at 741 West Ashley Street, the brick theatre was situated just west of the Knights of Phythias Hall, between Madison and Jefferson Streets. During its heyday, the Frolic was known for serving up a consistent mix of programming. For example, in October 1927, a private screening of the "Moon of Israel" was held for 183 ministers, principals and school teachers in order to use their influence to further interests of the picture. This film was followed up by a showing of Oscar Micheaux's film "The Millionaire", after it was sent from Ben Stein's Douglass Theatre in Macon, GA. The Frolic survived 25 years before closing in 1950. Once home to the Frolic and its neighborhoods, this long lost block of LaVilla's Great Black Way is now the site of the LaVilla School for the Arts.
1949 Sanborn map illustrating the location of the Roosevelt Theatre at 818 West Ashley Street.
Opened in 1949, the Roosevelt Theatre was located at 818 West Ashley Street. Anchoring the west side of the entertainment strip that was also known as the "Great Black Way", the Roosevelt was home to one screen and had a seating capacity of 1,150. Surrounded by several retail shops facing Ashley, Madison, Church and Davis Streets, the theatre included a 24' tall entrance and balcony overlooking a 34' high stage area.
Like most of LaVilla, the Roosevelt only exists in our memories. Long demolished before the redevelopment of LaVilla during the 1990s, the site is now the location of the LaVilla School of the Arts.
The LaVilla School of the Arts was built on the former site of the Roosevelt Theatre.
In September of 1929, Neil Witschen opened the Ritz Theater at the corner of State and Davis Streets, just a few blocks north of Ashley Street. Designed in the Art Deco style by local architect Jefferson Powell, the one screen, 970 seat theatre quickly became LaVilla's primary performance venue and an important stop on the Chitlin' Circuit.
The "Chitlin' Circuit" was the collective name given to a series of performance venues throughout the eastern, southern, and upper mid-west areas of the country that were safe and acceptable for African American entertainers to perform in during segregation. Other notable venues on the Chitlin' Circuit were the Cotton Club and Apollo Theater in Harlem, the Royal Peacock in Atlanta, the Fox Theatre in Detroit and the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C.
After the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Ritz lost the support of the declining community around it and closed. As a part of Mayor Ed Austin's River City Renaissance Plan, the theatre was partially demolished and renovated into a new theatre and museum. The new Ritz Theatre opened on September 30, 1999.
Article by Kristen Pickrell and Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at email@example.com