African American Theater Buildings:

an Illustrated Historical Directory, 1900 – 1955

by Eric Ledell Smith

(2003, McFarland & Company, Jefferson, NC, ISBN 0-7864-1529-0)

This is a valuable book for those who investigate African American performing arts history, but the author, Eric Ledell Smith, faced formidable challenges. First is the definition of an ‘African American Theatre Building.’ Mr. Smith’s choice to narrow his selection to “theatres owned or managed by blacks or whites for an African American audience” is a wise one. Unfortunately, even that sensible yardstick cannot set the boundaries because almost all theatres, black or white, that existed for any duration, changed policy and styles of entertainment (vaudeville, drama, musicals and movies) as needed to keep their doors open. Some, like the Gaiety in Boston, Massachusetts, played white shows, black shows and black & white shows from 1910 through 1920.

A second difficulty is the lack of a historical record to cull. Black performance venues took many forms. A theatre that was open one season could be closed the next and lost to the record even though Ernest Hogan, Charles Gilpin, Billy McLain or Ethel Waters played it. A building might be a church or a grange hall one year and a theatre for the next few seasons before it reverted back to its original purpose. Also, an African American revue was as likely to play a nightclub or a tent as a theatre. Many ‘black’ shows played school auditoriums when theatres were closed to them. The Whitman Sisters who, for 40 years, mounted the most celebrated black revues of the first half of the Twentieth Century, sometimes played in ‘tabernacle tents,’ as did shows headed by Ida Cox and Bessie Smith.

Within these limits, however, Mr. Smith has cobbled together a useful reference work that provides a solid and generous foundation for future investigation. There are a few minor errors (that should have been flagged by an editor) such as found in the description of Chicago’s Regal Theatre. According to Mr. Smith’s entry, the Regal opened for business in 1928 but a paragraph later he writes that “In 1927 musician Lois Deppe was a headliner.” Also, the Gaiety and the Casino theatres in Boston, notable venues for black revues, are not listed.

It is all too easy to sharpshoot a project this ambitious and courageous. Mr. Smith is to be commended for collecting between the covers of one volume many, perhaps most of the theatres (including drive-ins) that played motion pictures or featured black vaudeville and revues that were produced for African American audiences in 37 states and the District of Columbia. This is a valuable addition to the library of those researchers in the field.

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