Friday, October 23, 2015

African American Theaters of St. Louis

Continuing my posts on St. Louis Movie Theaters, I've looked at the four fully operational theaters as well as the many we've lost. This time I'll consider the long list of what were exclusively or became African American (AA) theaters.

How many? Hard to tell as the subject has not been fully researched to date. But per my best source of published information on the subject is Eric Ledell Smith's "African American Theater Buildings - An Illustrated Historical Directory, 1900-1955".  Per Smith's assertion, there were 31 AA theaters in St. Louis.


Eric Ledell Smith, a Detroit, MI native, was a historian at The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. He died June 15, 2008 at the age of 58. He published this book in 2003.

This book is hard to find; I got it on Ebay and I hope to donate it to the St. Louis Public Library as I feel it is the best place to start if you are interested in the subject and the citations are complete and thorough if you want to dig into the microfiche and digital archives of newspaper ads and movie trade journals which are becoming more and more available in digital format.

I'm assured by several librarians, who've been cherished resources, that the Central Library will be interested in the book.  So hopefully you'll be able to check it out soon.

Per Smith, it was extremely hard to find information on the AA theaters. Very little visual and written documentation was available in his research. But you have to start somewhere and Smith's book is valuable in that it identifies theaters by state and city and where possible, the years of operation. He claims that his book is the first to feature photographs of black theater buildings. Admittedly, the author was honest in stating that it is going to be very hard to document the history of black theaters due to the lack of reliable info. But he intended the book to serve as a touchpoint for local historians to take it over from here. In my assessment this book does just that, but not much more. It provides the most comprehensive list of AA theaters in St. Louis that I could find. But, if you are looking for more than addresses, Cinema Treasures and Cinema Tour offer more photos and first hand/local knowledge, but it's a good scholarly start. No photos of St. Louis theaters were published in this book and the only two discussed greater than a simple address and # of seats is the Booker T. Washington Theater that was at 2248 Market Street.

Josephine Baker performed her vaudeville act here as a young girl.  Drake Walker's Bombay Girls vaudeville act came here in 1926 and included, among others, Bessie Smith. The Count Basie Orchestra played here many times in the 1930s and 40s.

So here's the comprehensive list that Smith accumulated; but note it is a clunky, non-reliable list.

Per Smith, there were 31 AA theaters in St. Louis; but if you do a simple review of his list, you'll find some duplications based on "renaming" the same theater over the years. I've color coded the duplications for your consideration:

Theater Address
Amytis 4300 Ferdinand Streek
Assembly* Jefferson Street
Aubert 4949 Easton Avenue
Booker T. Washington 2248 Market Street
Carver 1310 Franklin Avenue
Casino 1620 Market Street**
Circle 4470 Easton Street
Comet 4106 Finney Avenue
Criterion 2644 Franklin Avenue
Douglas 4201 Finney Street
Globe Franklin Street
Jest-A-Mere 4201 Finney Street
Joy* No Address Available
Laclede 3116 Laclede Avenue
Lincoln* 3045 Olive Street
Marquette 1806 Franklin Avenue
Movie 2620 Market Street
New Movie 2620 Market Street
Olympia* No Address Available
Palace* No Address Available
Pendleton 4264 Finney Avenue
Queens 4704 Maffit Street
Regal 3142 Easton Street
Retina 2008 Market Street**
Roosevelt 317 N. Leffingwell Street
Star 16 S. Jefferson Avenue
Strand 2000 Market Street
Sun No Address Available
Uptown 4938 Delmar Avenue
Vendome* 2313 Market Street***
Venus 4264 Finney Avenue**


* = Not listed on Cinema Treasures
** = sourced from Cinema Treasures
*** =  address found in the Freeman Illustrated Colored Newspaper

Upon further inspection and based on subjective evidence on Cinema Treasures, the Carver and the Globe were one in the same, just the product of a name change over the years, so really the count is probably more likely to be 26.

So where does St. Louis fit in with the rest of the country? The following count represents the total number of AA theaters documented in each city in from 1900-1955.

The top 20 cities were listed:

       City
# of AA Theaters
New York, NY
      60
Chicago, IL
      49
Detroit, MI      
      48
Washington D.C.
      34
Baltimore, MD
      34
Philadelphia, PA
      31
St. Louis, MO
      31*
Indianapolis, IN
      22
Houston, TX
      21
Atlanta, GA   
      20
Cleveland, OH
      20
Los Angeles, CA
      18
Pittsburgh, PA
      18
New Orleans, LA
      17
Dallas, TX
      15
Norfolk, VA
      15
Cincinnati, OH
      14
Newark, NJ
      13
Jacksonville, FL
      13
Kansas City, MO
      12

* = by my count, 26 unique theaters; no change in Nat'l placement, but I did not research the other cities for accuracy.

This top ten national ranking in AA theaters is largely a reflection of the history of St. Louis (and old cities of America in general), with many mostly free blacks on the East Coast, and descendants of the slave trade in the South and of course, the substantial migration of black people arriving from the South looking for work in northern factories in the days of segregation which happened to coincide with the golden age of Hollywood and central HVAC when all-day theaters hit their stride. This customer base and social trend meant lots of theaters in St. Louis.

Researching the AA theaters is tough and finding printed material on the subject proved a challenge. But, our library system is local treasure and most of the books out there on the subject are available in the central stacks.

One of the books cited in Ledell was "The African American Theatre Directory 1910-1960" by Bernard L. Peterson, Jr. available in the Central Library's reference section.


There are only two AA St. Louis theaters mentioned in this book:


This book is a great resource for the non-local AA theater & vaudeville troops that passed through St. Louis, but really isn't much help in understanding the buildings themselves. So nothing else in book form that I could find. 

But, in the digital era, newspaper and trade journal ads being scanned and uploaded to a server are our best bet for understanding more about these theaters.

Oh, and of course, documenting the stories of old timers who attended these and are willing to talk about em is the BEST method...but it takes time and connections and a strong bullshit meter calibrated toward fact vs. folklore.

Let's get into what I could drum up for each theater:

Amytis Theater, 2300 Ferdinand

Sourced from Cinema Tour, contribution from Darren Snow (source):
As is the case with most of the St. Louis theaters catering to African-Americans in the first half of the last century, the history of the Amytis is difficult to trace since these theaters generally did not advertise in the daily newspapers. City directories do, however, show a listing for the Amytis at this address from 1937 to 1958. This theater does bear at least a tangential relationship to a major figure in Black history, however: It was located in the Poro College/Hotel complex founded by Annie Malone, America's first Black female millionaire.
The theater is no longer there, here's an entry from Cinema Treasures: 
The Amytis Theatre, which opened in 1934, was closed in 1960 and afterward demolished in preparation for a neighborhood redevelopment project that never materialized.
It is now an empty lot next to a church in the Ville Neighborhood.

Assembly Theater, Jefferson Street

This one was listed by Smith, but not Cinema Treasures or Cinema Tour.  It was managed by AA, Richard Barrett in 1921. It is listed on Jefferson Street which is dubious, because Jefferson is an Avenue (nerdy nuance). Its existance is corroborated in the Julius-Cahn-Gus Hill Theatrical Guide, 1921 ed.


Aubert Theater was at 4949 Easton (now MLK):

This theater operated from 1923 to 1953. It's hard to believe these brick beauties could only stand for 30 years. The times didn't think these buildings mattered from a historical or architectural standpoint. There is a Family Dollar in its place today.



Booker T. Washington, 2323 Market Street.

Booker T. Washington is the theater with the most entries from Smith, 2003. It was originally a vaudeville house and eventual a picture house. When central AC came around, it was later named the Booker Washington Air Dome. It was at 2323 Market, not 2248 as listed in Smith, 2003 as corroborated by an advert in the August 20, 1910 edition of The Freeeman, An Illustrated Colored Newspaper out of Indianapolis, IN:



Smith, 2003 goes on to cite that it was originally managed by Charles H. Turpin, son of a free slave and brother of Tom Turpin, a famous ragtime pianist which is a whole other story worth exploration. The story on rapiano.com describes the theater as:
"a vaudeville theater in a partially tent-like structure at 2323 Market Street, just a block down from the former Rosebud on the other side of the street. Charles employed many ragtime greats during the theater's run through the mid-1910s, including composer/arranger Artie Matthews."
The Rosebud Cafe, at 2220-2222 Market Street, was a legendary club for black pianists.
Carver/Globe/Palace Theater, 1310 Franklin Avenue

I couldn't find much on the Carver/Globe, frequent poster "JAlex" on Cinema Treasures said:

"Originally known as the Palace Theatre, the first mention of the house I found was in February 1911 when (the) theatre became part of the O.T. Crawford circuit…an affiliation lasting one year. Theatre renamed Globe in 1932.  Renamed Carver in 1944. Theatre operated until late 1955. Structure demolished in early 1956."

Here's a possible photo of the theater when it was the Globe:
Casino Theater, 1620 Market Street

Cinema Treasures has an entry that lists that address as 1618 Market.  No photos.  The property is now a parking lot for the U.S. Post Office facility.  This was the part of St. Louis that had many of the ragtime clubs.

Circle Theater, 4470 Easton (Now MLK)

From Charles Van Bibber on Cinema Treasures:

"One of many theatres that lined Easton Avenue. The Circle Theatre had a varied life. It opened in 1910 as the Easton-Taylor Theatre, later shortened to the Easton Theatre, and later renamed the Circle Theatre. From 1943 until it closed in 1951, it was an African-American theater. For a neighborhood house it was elaborately decorated. It had a small balcony with colums along the staircase that led to the balcony. There were a lot of mirrors in the lobby with lush red draperies and trim." (source)

It is now and empty lot.

Comet Theater, 4106 Finney Street


Apparently the theater had a sign with a lit up shooting comet.  It was demo'd in the 1980s. The site is now a group of urban scaled new homes called the North Sarah Apartments in the Vandeventer Neighborhood.  Too bad the history was not recognized and preserved.

Criterion Theater, 2644 Franklin Street


Rumor has it a Greek family owned this one. It was operational until the mid-1960's, it was demo'd and is now an empty lot. Prior to it's demo there was talk of making this an AA history museum. Too bad.

Douglas Theater/Jest-A-Mere, 4201 Finney

An entry from Jerry Alexander on Cinema Treasures has this entry:  
"The Douglass Theatre, at 4201 Finney Avenue, was opened in November 1918 by Charles Pitman as the Jest-A-Mere Theatre. One of the theatres for the Black population in a time of segregation, the theatre was purchased in 1927 by Thomas James and was renamed the Douglass Theatre, after the Abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
When the theatre opened, newspaper coverage said: “Entirely built by Colored labor, completion of big building is a triumph for the race; continuous fight made by unions to force Colored men off the job”. 
Seating capacity listed as 850 at opening; reduced to 700 in 1934; reduced to 650 in 1950 (per Film Daily Year Book). 
Located in St. Louis' Ville neighborhood, the Douglass Theatre apparently, per newspaper advertistments, was last open in April 1962." (source)
It is now an empty lot.

It's odd that a publication: "Richard E. Norman and Race Filmmaking" cited the Jest-A-Mere at 4300 Page Street, but corroborates Charles Pittman as the manager (he was AA) (source).


Joy (no address)

This one is a mystery.  Nothing on Cinema Treasures or Cinema Tour.

Maybe it was mistaken in Smith's list as a St. Louis theater, when really it was in a small Missouri town, as there are three other Joy Theaters in MO:


Laclede Theater, 3116 Laclede

Here's an entry from Charles Van Bibber from Cinema Treasures:
"The Laclede was built and opened in 1940 as an independent theatre. It was located in the Mill Creek section of the city just blocks from the Grand White Way where all the movie palaces were located. The theatre had an African-American audience. No trace of the Laclede to be found at all. The Laclede closed in 1959."

Per JAlex, frequent contributor on Cinema Treasures added the following:
"Laclede Theatre built by Alex Pappas. Architect of record was O. W. Stiegemeyer. House approximately 500 seats. Opening date was March 23, 1940. Closing date was June 23, 1959. Theatre, from the beginning, was for the African-American trade."
This one was demo'd for what is now the Harris-Stowe University campus. 

Lincoln Theater, 3045 Olive Street

Not much exists on the Laclede.  Cinema Tour lists this as existing, but no address or other info.


Smith's reference cited the Film Daily Yearbook 1952-1955; which I was unable to track down. This one remains one of the bigger mysteries.

Marquette Theater, 1806 Franklin

According to Bibber on Cinema Treasures:
"The Marquette Theatre opened in 1913...(and) became an African-American theatre in 1943. The theatre went to weekends only in the mid-1950’s and closed in 1961 when the area was mainly demolished to make way for an industrial park." (source)
No photos; it is now an empty lot.

Movie Theater/New Movie Theater 2620 Market Street

This one was right at Jefferson, across from MSD's HQ.  Cinema Tour lists the address as 2351 Market, not 2620 as published in Smith.

From Cinema Treasures:
"The Movie Theatre opened in 1921 seating 406. The Movie was just a small sub run house located a few blocks from the busy Union Station. It was remodeled in 1946 and renamed the New Movie Theatre. It stayed around until the travel by trains had dwindled to nothing and closed in 1957 when the area was set to be redeveloped."
Olympia Theater, 107 South Broadway

Smith said Olympia (like the beer), not Olympic. But I'm pretty sure it was Olympic...although this should not be confused with the Olympic Drive-In (nee Rock Road Drive-In) in North County.

From the "My View From The Balcony" website: 

The Olympic Theater was located at 107 S. Broadway St. Louis Missouri and opened in 1866.

The above picture is from 1870, The Olympic first entertained with vaudeville acts and minstrel shows. After 1869 it turned to legitimate drama. A new theater building replaced the 1866 building in 1882. Theater greats of the nineteenth century, Edwin Booth, Joseph Jefferson, Edwin Forrest, Helena Modjeska and Charlotte Cushman performed on its stage. (source)

There is a book published on the subject:  "A history of the first Olympic Theatre of St. Louis, Missouri, from 1866-1879" by Theodore Clark Johnson.  It is in the stacks collection of the Missouri History Museum. 

I'd be surprised if this was an AA theater.

Never been there, that's another one to add to my list.

***Update from November 2, 2015***

Reader Greg Johnson (twitter: @PresbyterianStl), tweeted a photo from the Missouri History Museum archives which indicate the theater was in the 1400 block of Market Street and was razed for the  Kiel Auditorium.  Here's a photo and link to the story:


Pendleton/Venus Theater, 4246 Finney

Per Charles Van Bibber on Cinema Treasures:
"One of the theatres for the black audience in the times of racial segregation, this opened in September 1915 as the Pendleton Theatre (the theatre just east of Pendleton). Opening publicity stated “the only house for colored west of Jefferson”. The name change to the Venus Theatre occurred in February 1924. The theatre was last noted as being open in 1933." (source)
This was another AA theater owned and managed by an AA, E.F. Austin (source).

Here's an entry published in The Moving Picture World Volume XXVII from January-March, 2016:


Queens Theater, 4704 Maffitt

This one had an airdome on the east side of the street.  There are some great personal stories from former employees at Cinema Treasures.  Read them HERE.

This building is still standing in use as a church.  The front has gone through some major alterations, so I showed the side of the building here:


Regal Theater, 3142 Easton (MLK):

Some photos capturing the demolition were taken by Ecology of Absence:


At one point it must have been called the Coliseum, as this building below, certainly looks the part:


From Charles Van Bibber on Cinema Treasures:
"The Regal Theatre opened in 1931 seating 846 as part of the Arthur Theatre chain. (Franchon & Marco at that time) Very impressive theatre from the outside but rather plain on the inside. A two story building with a small balcony seating just under 200 with the balance on the main floor. Odd thing about the theatre was that the rest rooms were located in the lobby of the balcony. No rest rooms on the main level. The front of the theatre was constructed with a pale blue marble up the front of the building and about twenty feet down each side."
Retina Theater, 2008 Market Street

No photos available, is now a parking lot for Maggie O'Brien's next to Union Station.

I was able to find this ad on Todd Franklin's Flikr page:


This one was managed by a white guy, J.H. Gentner. (source)

Roosevelt Theater, 317 N. Leffingwell 

Entry from Charles Van Bibber on Cinema Treasures:
"The Roosevelt Theatre was one of about six neighborhood theatres built for African-American clientele. The theatre opened in 1927 seating 591. A single floor theatre, located in the middle of the block just a half block from busy Franklin Avenue and three blocks from the neighboring Criterion Theatre. The Roosevelt Theatre outlasted the Criterion Theatre by many years.The front of the theatre was a simple block front with a cream and orange mix in color with a large marquee lined with tons of neon. The theatre closed in 1966 when the neighborhood was slated for redevelopment. Remained a busy theatre until the day it was closed. Admission prices remained the mainstay until the theatre closed. When it closed adults were 75 cents and children were 25 cents." (source)
It was demo'd and is now a surface lot for an auto repair shop.

Star Theater, 16 South Jefferson

From Charles Van Bibber on Cinema Treasures:
"The Star Theatre opened in 1922 as part of the Komm Theatre chain and seated 866. A two story theatre on the outskirts of downtown St. Louis. 344 of the theatres seats were in the balcony with the balance on the main level. The Star had a black with burgandy streaked marble facade with a large marquee. The verticle sign had no lettering just a huge flashing gold neon star. The three sided marquee came all the way to the curb and the larger tractor trailers were always bashing into the front part of the marquee. The neon on the front side seldom worked because it was always getting torn off. The inside of the auditorium walls had two large star shaped light fixtures on the side walls that would dim when the features started. One of the few theatres that had curtains that raised up instead of opening from the middle to the sides. The theatre was closed in 1959 when the area was redeveloped for a large hotel. The Star theatre was a movie over house for both the Loew’s State and Loew’s Orpheum theatres downtown. When the features were done at the Loew’s they moved to the Star." (source)
It was managed by a white guy: Christ Efthim (source).

Strand Theater, 2000 Market Street

I can't find any evidence of a Strand on Market.  I could find a Strand right next to the Columbia Theater on Sixth Street by St. Charles Street. But this was not the one at 2000 Market Street.

Here's a photo of the 6th Street Strand Theater from the Missouri History Museum collection:


Sun Theater (No address listed)

I cannot find anything to corroborate this theater ever existed as a AA theater.  The Sun that was in Grand Center was never an AA theater, it had German roots, I have no idea where Ledell got this info.

Uptown Theater, 4938 Delmar Boulevard

Per Jerry Alexander on Cinema Treaures:
"The theatre opened in 1910 as the Delmar Theatre with a stock-musical company policy and within a few years became a motion picture house. The architect was E. W. Pipe.

The theatre was located at 4938 Delmar Avenue and seated 839. An airdome opened next door for the summer months and seated 1,380.

The theatre was renamed the Embassy Theatre in 1924 and in 1931 became the Uptown Theatre.

As a film house the theatre closed in 1953 and in 1954 the theatre was last used as the site of a jazz festival." (source)
It is a suburban styled strip mall today, just east of Kingshighway.

Vendome Theater, 2313 Market Street

The Ledell book was unable to find this address, but I was able to find it listed in a ad from the Freeman Illustrated Colored Newspaper from October 8, 1910:



There was a cluster of AA theaters around Jefferson and Market where MSD and Wells Fargo now stand.

So there's my best contribution to the AA theater history in St. Louis.  Tracking down the Film Daily Yearbook, 1952-1955 as well as the book Blacks in Black and White by Henry Sampson will be key in filling in some of the blanks.

If you want to collaborate on research or have photos or stories to share, look me up.

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