Showstoppers and Curtain Raisers: Vaudeville and the Chitlin' Circuit
For August and September, we will showcase our town's cultural arts history, along with special spotlights on local icons such as Blind Tom, Ma Rainey, Nunally Johnson, Carson McCullers, and Alma Thomas. All of these stories (and more!) will become a part of a second history exhibit at the RiverCenter, opening in January.
Thank you all so much for your continued interest in these spotlights. Remember, if you have any ideas - I'm always grateful for them. Historic preservation only flourishes because of your passion for the history of this town, its stories, and its people. If you have any questions or concerns, never hesitate to contact the HCF Office – 706-322-0756 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for all you do for preservation in Columbus!
SOURCES: In Order of Appearance: Chronicling 135 years on America’s Most Celebrated Stage, F. Clason Kyle, 2006. Showboats to Softshoes: A Century of Musical Development in Columbus, Georgia from 1828 to 1928, Katherine H. Mahan, 1967. African American Theaters in Georgia: Preserving an Entertainment Legacy by Jason L. Ellerbee. University of Georgia, Master of Historic Preservation Thesis, 2004.
The turn of the 20th century was a golden era in American theater – touring companies were traveling, vaudeville was gaining popularity, each season in New York City saw an increasing number of shows opening, and The Springer Opera House was preparing for renovations to handle the glorious influx of entertainment expected. Vaudeville had many types of entertainment in its heyday. There were assorted songs, dances, dramatic episodes, trained animals, acrobats, jugglers, magicians, ventriloquists, mind-readers, musicians, and clowns. Vaudeville performers would wear bright costumes which, along with the entire stage setting, combined to center attention on the performers. The thing that made vaudeville so popular was that it had the capacity to commercialize any form of entertainment. It could do it with a working-class song or with a grand opera. Vaudeville was trying to provide some form of entertainment for everybody at each show.
The Springer closed its doors in 1900 for a redesign of the interior. This renovation saw much of the inside gutted and the shell of the building then filled with a much more elaborate decor. While the second-floor house had served its purpose well for 29 years, the stage was cramped, there was little backstage space, sets were becoming complicated, actors demanded more room, and the audience wanted more comfortable seating than wooden benches. To design this new showplace, the owners sought out the best designer for the job, J.B. McElfatrick. He was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and became of the preeminent theater designers in the late 19th century. He designed theaters in New York, St. Louis, Washington, Baltimore, Memphis, and Louisville. McElfatrick left his mark on the Springer by bringing the theater to street level, adding a second balcony for African Americans, and converting the extra space now on the second and third floors to hotel rooms. While The Springer was now able to accommodate and attract a better variety of shows and celebrities, this glory would not last. This was the result of an invention by Louis and Auguste Lumiere. It was a device that could record and project moving pictures.
Interior of the Empire Theater, New York City. The Empire was designed by J.B. McElfatrick in 1893. He modified this design for the renovation of the Springer in 1900.
Some of the first motion pictures to appear at The Springer were products of Thomas A. Edison. As the motion picture industry began to grow, cinemas began popping up and giving theaters a run for their money. To compete, The Springer took out a contract with Triangle Pictures in 1915 to begin showing motion pictures regularly during the week. With the stock market crash and onset of the Great Depression, the country had little money to spend on the pleasures of live theater. The touring companies and vaudeville houses almost completely disappeared at this time. Theaters, like The Springer, darkened their houses and lit them only for motion pictures.
In 1931, Ethel Barrymore (great aunt of actress Drew Barrymore) attempted to revive the theater circuits to modest success. For the Springer, she would be the final big star to play The Springer’s stage for 35 years. The Springer limped on as a movie house and occasional venue for local performances and concerts until 1958. It was then owned by Martin Theaters. The doors were then locked, but only for a short time. In 1963, a small group of young idealists purchased the building to save her from the wrecking ball. They had seen many buildings demolished in Columbus by this time and refused to let The Springer be the next one. Their vision created the Historic Columbus Foundation in 1966.
Real estate investors dictated the typical American theater plan at the beginning of the 20th century. If a theater was successful, it could yield a landlord a greater profit than any other form of real estate investment at that time. The producer of a play, the tenant, agreed to pay 40% of his gross box office receipts as rent. Tenants would be displaced quickly if they did not have a hit. A hit show averaged a take of anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000 a week, or more, and the show would run for a year or longer. Theaters also had multiple uses. They could be used for church services, town meetings, and all types of assemblages. If a theater was limited architecturally, it reduced its potential income and shortened its useful life. To provide for multiple uses of theaters, planning must have been based on an analysis of attendance and performance requirements of each type of production to be housed. Eventually this type of theater did collapse along with every other form of speculative real estate that was based on inflated land values and high rentals.
Early African American theaters were similar to theaters for white audiences in many ways. They were built as real estate investments, and they were very important to the communities in which they were located. The only gathering places that African Americans had in their communities were churches, ballrooms, and vaudeville theaters. Because of segregation within the Jim Crow era, many African Americans took matters into their own hands. They were led by a gentleman named Sherman Houston Dudley, and they organized “Black-owned theaters into circuits to facilitate the presentation of Black acts for Black audiences and to circumvent white theater circuits.” The first circuit was organized in 1911 and it was called S. H. Dudley’s Theatrical Enterprise, but generally referred to as the Dudley Circuit or Dudley Time.
There were very few Black-managed playhouses that existed before 1900, but by 1910 the Indianapolis Freedman recorded that there were 53 theaters owned by African Americans in the United States, with the large majority (42) of them in the South. Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff in their article entitled, “‘They Cert’ly sound Good to Me’: Sheet Music, Southern Vaudeville, and the Commercial Ascendancy of the Blues,” said, “By 1910 almost every Black community in every city in the South had a little vaudeville theater.” By 1921, approximately 300 theaters catered to African Americans with only 31% (93) of them owned and managed by Blacks. In 1931, 162 theaters were owned and managed by African Americans, and 56% of those were dedicated to vaudeville. In the years from 1910 to 1930, Georgia had more Black-owned theaters than any other state; the only exception was Texas, with Atlanta having five and Savannah having four. The Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA) charted the course for artists of the Chitlin Circuit. The Chitlin Circuit’s artists “mostly toured in Chicago, New York, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina.”
Georgia was a pivotal state in the formation of the Chitlin Circuit, because it helped start the careers of some very influential artists like Gertrude Pridgett “Ma” Rainey from Columbus, Bessie Smith from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Thomas Dorsey from Villa Rica, and Fletcher Henderson from Cuthbert. The Chitlin Circuit allowed many performers to express, in live music and art to mainly Black “audiences, many messages that were unacceptable to mainstream, white record companies.” Columbus' Liberty Theatre was a stop on the Chitlin' Circuit.
The Liberty Theatre (813 8th Avenue) first opened in Columbus by late April 1925 with a 600-seat capacity. Other motion-picture and live theater houses had existed for some time, with some opera houses like The Springer being converted to motion-picture houses, but few communities had a theater for African American audiences. Roy E. Martin (pictured above), owner of Martin Theaters, built and owned The Liberty Theater. Martin (1885-1948), a native of Harris County, purchased his first theater in 1912 and built his first new one in 1914, both in Columbus. By 1928, he owned nine theaters in Columbus and nearby Phenix City, Alabama. According to the National Register nomination for The Liberty Theatre, the motivation behind the building of the theater is not certain. Some believe that white citizens in Columbus who loved the performing arts felt strongly that African Americans should have a place of their own; others believe it was primarily a business opportunity for the fast-growing Martin Theaters chain. The local newspapers in 1924 show a strong local emphasis on new recreational places and a need for entertainment for Black soldiers.
The site of The Liberty was residential until immediately before the project began, even though the land had been purchased for the theater in 1920. The architect Mr. Martin used for The Liberty and for The Royal Theater (completed in 1928) was T. Firth Lockwood (1894-1963) of Columbus. Lockwood designed buildings of all types, including private homes, schools, churches and libraries, and he worked in Columbus and the southwest Georgia region. Interviews have established that Jim Ingersoll and family of Phenix City, Alabama, did the grading and landscaping of the site. Initially, there was no inside concession. Food was obtained from the adjacent cafe which had a connecting opening to the theater. Later, a concession was added inside. In 1927, cost for a movie at The Liberty and other local theaters was five cents for the balcony and ten cents for the orchestra.
After the theater opened, some seats were reserved for white citizens. In an interview with Roscoe Chester for the article, “On the Road with King Oliver” by Peter Gerler (March 30, 2021, in The Sycopated Times), Mr. Chester stated that there was a rope down the aisle with whites on one side, Blacks on the other. “If the rope were to disappear, it wouldn’t have made any difference,” he said. “It’s a mental block. It never left the Black mind—that I’m over here, and Mr. Charlie’s over there.” In its heyday, The Liberty saw many important African American figures in the entertainment world. Most important among these was "Ma" Rainey, a Columbus native who performed there on many occasions while known as "Mother of the Blues." At least once, she had Bessie Smith, another great blues singer, with her. Marian Anderson is said to have played there in 1925-26, as well as the famous Whitman Sisters. The Marching Club of the Elks sponsored most of the big bands of the time, including Duke Ellington, Cab Galloway, Ella Fitzgerald singing with the Chick Webb Band, and others. It is not known if they performed at The Liberty, but they were part of the cultural activities represented by the theater.
Before the first talkies began to appear after 1927, the silent movies were accompanied by local musicians. The Liberty was also a multipurpose facility, being the scene of many revues, minstrel shows, vaudeville acts, and other types of live entertainment. It also hosted dramatic readings and poetry readings. A local band, sponsored by the International Benevolent Society, often played at The Liberty. Occasionally, there would be an inspirational speech, such as the time baseball star Jackie Robinson spoke, challenging young Blacks to succeed at their chosen fields.
From World War II until the theater closed in 1973, it functioned mostly as a movie house. The theater closed after integration opened all other local theaters to all people. After its closure in 1973, the building was retained by the Martins until December 1980, when Roy E. Martin III donated the Liberty Theatre to a group of William H. Spencer High School alumni, the Golden Owlettes. The Liberty Theatre received a federal grant in 1993 and then reopened in 1997 after a significant renovation thanks in large part to the efforts of Rep. Calvin Smyre, Charlotte Frazier, and The Columbus Challenge. The theater portion of the facility has not been able to be utilized since 2016 due to roof repair needs, as well as other upgrades. The Liberty Theatre Cultural Center, Inc. is currently going through a strategic planning process to raise funds to revitalize this important building once again for our community. Next Week: Next Thursday, we will celebrate Columbus' own Gertrude Pridgett "Ma" Rainey. Thank you all again for your continued interest in these emails and for your support of preservation! See you next week!