As always, click on the pic for full size…

In the beginning

From the start, for thousands of years, public entertainment has been a part of human existence. For all but the last couple of hundred years, that was mostly done outdoors. In the early American South, public entertainment centered on the village green or the courthouse square. In slavery days, white folks, free blacks and slaves all both participated in and spectated at such events. There was always a clear division among the spectators by race, but all were welcome. When weather dictated, events moved indoors to warehouses or other large buildings. There was never any question that black spectators were welcome, as long as the racial divide, often marginal, was maintained.

Brown’s Opera House at Fourth and Main…Forsyth County Public Library Picture Collection

In 1880, the town of Winston, NC got its first dedicated indoor entertainment venue, Brown’s Opera House, on Fourth Street across from the county courthouse. Brown’s seated about 600, but there was a separate gallery for black citizens. And that gallery was usually the first to fill up, whether the show was a lecture, a famous opera singer, a touring Shakespeare company or Blind Tom, the most popular American music act of the latter 19th century.

See: Blind Tom in the Twin City

The movies

In the late 19th century, a number of people in various parts of the world introduced the concept of motion pictures. In 1903, the Winston Elks Club built a headquarters on Liberty Street at the corner of Fifth that incorporated an auditorium especially adapted for stage productions, including drops with a collection of generic stage backgrounds and was considered the finest theater between Washington, DC and Atlanta. It had a balcony with a separate entrance set aside for black patrons. It would not be equipped for movies until several years later.

The Elks’ Auditorium opened on September 24, 1903 with a vaudeville show put on by the local Elks. It drew a standing room only crowd of over 1,300 and brought in $1,100, more than enough to pay for the seats and interior fixtures of the $35,000 building. A second showing was given the next night at half price to accommodate those who had not been able to get in the night before. The gallery for black patrons was accessed by the side door on Fifth Street, which had a separate lobby with stairs on both sides leading to the third level. It had nine rows of seats, the first three reserved at a premium price, and seated 450, a bit over a third of the total capacity of 1,225.

But as the idea of “movies” gained ground, a number of motion picture theaters opened in the Twin City, only one of which, The Liberty, had accommodations for black audiences. By 1912, there were four such venues in Winston, as there were in other similar sized southern cities. But Winston was a bit different, because from the start in 1875, R.J. Reynolds had employed a large number of black workers and Winston-Salem had a flourishing black community who could afford leisure time pleasures.

The only picture we have of the Rex comes from a 1912 newspaper ad…this image is significantly enlarged and Photoshopped for as much clarity as possible…

So that year, a group of local black businessmen, including Clarence and Edward Dorrity, opened the Rex Theater at 104 East Fourth Street in the vibrant black business district between Third, Fourth, Church and Chestnut Streets. The Rex was an instant success, so in 1916, the Dunbars, of Charlotte, who already operated a number of theaters for black patrons in other cities, opened the Dunbar Theater on Depot Street (Patterson) at Sixth in a building owned by Bishop Linwood W. Kyle of the AME Zion Church.

The Whitman Sisters, considered the royalty of vaudeville, frequently appeared at the Dunbar

 

One of the first attractions at the Lafayette Theater was the world famous all black Alabama Minstrels, whose show included a hot rhythm band, chorus dancers, comedy sketches, acrobats, animal acts and sometimes sideshows. The headliners were “black pearls,” covered in rhinestones and bugle beads, who closed the show shouting the blues—Ma Rainey and her protégé Bessie Smith.

Both theaters did well, so in 1919, William S. Scales and others opened a second theater in the 100 block of East Fourth, just two doors down from the Rex. That theater was known as the Lafayette. Few southern cities had even one theater for black patrons. Durham had two. But by early 1921, all three local theaters were thriving.

Hollywood comes calling

The early days of movie theaters were much more about vaudeville acts than movies, for the simple reason that only a handful of true feature movies were released each year in the US. The competition among theaters for those features was fierce. Most theaters were left with numerous short films, which showed a few minutes of water flowing over Niagara Falls, or some street scenes of Paris, or the latest dog and pony act. Black theaters were especially at a disadvantage, since the top pictures went to the highest bidder, almost always white theater owners.

At the time, the Orpheum group, which owned many theaters in major cities, dominated the booking of new features east of the Mississippi. Scales joined a new organization, the Theater Owners Booking Agency and soon became an officer of TOBA, but the group was dominated by white theater owners and soon became known as “Tough on Black Artists.”

William S. Scales, taken from a bad microfilm image and enhanced…Scales was an entrepreneur, operating cafes, billiard parlors, manufacturing plants, a funeral home, a bank and, of course, theaters.

Then, someone noticed that black audiences had a stronger response to movies that depicted successful black people, real or fictional. And so, the “race picture” was born, targeted specifically at black theaters and their audiences.

Oscar Devereaux Micheaux

A number of people scrambled to cash in on the new idea. By far the most successful was Oscar Devereaux Micheaux, a black novelist and film director director and producer based in Chicago. His first film, “The Homesteader”, derived from one of his novels, was released in 1918 with considerable success. It told the story of a black family’s triumph over racism and and economic hardship on a farm in the Midwest. Michaeux would eventually write, direct and produce 44 films in the silent and early talky eras.

In the spring of 1921, three white men in Winston-Salem decided to join the “race picture” parade. They formed the North State Film Company. William Scales was not an official member of the group, but he played an important part in their planning. In late April, people traveling the Winston – Bethania Road (now Reynolda) noticed some strange activity along Mill Creek near where the Yadkinville Road branched off from the Bethania Road. Someone was building “teepees” along the creek bottom. Eventually a local reporter tracked down the perpetrators, who turned out to be the North State Film folks.

Apparently, someone had second thoughts about releasing a lion in the Old Town area. The picture was never made. But North State had already contracted with another “race picture” pioneer, Ben Strasser of New York. He brought a professional crew down from the Big Apple, and in May, 1921, began filming a new fiction film “A Giant of His Race”, with a production budget of $50,000. All of the characters in the movie except for the half dozen big stars, were local people, mostly black. Most of the exteriors and interiors were shot at the home of industrialist and attorney Lindsay Patterson on Patterson Avenue, a few blocks north of Liberty Street.

A Giant of His Race” had its world premier over a three day period beginning August 28, 1921 at the Lafayette Theater in Winston-Salem. It then moved to the famous Lincoln Theater in Chicago for its second premier, then on to Harlem for a long run. It showed in other theaters across the country and received generally excellent criticism.

from Within Our Gates: Ethnicity in American Feature Films, 1911-1960
Alan Gevinson – 1997

 

Princess Theatre, Vicksburg, Mississippi, December, 1921

But it appears that only one print of the film was made. Today, it is on the missing in action list, thought to be lost forever.

Billboard comes to town

In the early 20th century, Billboard devoted a page each week to the black entertainment business. It was known as “J.A. Jackson’s Page: In the Interest of the Colored Actor, Actress and Musician of America”. Jackson referred to both the page and himself as “The Page”. In late October 1921 he traveled to Winston-Salem to check out the North State Film Company, the Piedmont Colored Fair and the local black theaters and entertainers.

Jackson enjoyed a tour of a Reynolds tobacco factory and the Reynolda estate. He noted that the population of the city was almost 50% black and mentioned that black citizens owned and operated an insurance company, two banks, a building and loan company, a number of commercial buildings and two of the three black theaters. Although the fair, a statewide organization directed mostly by local people, was quite a production, second in size in the Carolinas only to the NC state fair in Raleigh, Jackson was dazzled by the lively local theater and entertainment scene.

Click to read

He gave detailed information about the staffs of the three theaters, singling out William S. Scales, the owner of the Lafayette and also a director of the fair and treasurer of TOBA. He also mentioned that the famous Japanese cameraman H.G. Uyama was in town and filmed him (Jackson), Scales and black actor Luke Scott for a Monumental Pictures Corporation short. Unfortunately, that film too has long since gone missing.

He listed the three local black brass bands:

Odd Fellows Band – I. Greer, leader

Gold Leaf Cornet Band – Professor Branchfield

Freddie Pratt’s All-Star Band

The Gold Leaf band had been performing since the 1870s and was popular all over the mid-Atlantic region.

Pratt’s Palace Hotel was the primary destination for traveling acts visiting the Twin City…it was located in the 700 block of Depot/Patterson, near the well known 700 Club, a popular speakeasy…

And Jackson mentioned a number of local acts that had fame well outside the area, including concert singer Maude O’Kelly, who had a wide regional following and whose husband Jackson was the projectionist at the Dunbar Theater. An array of other local talent’s names are listed in the accompanying Billboard image above.

The Land of Lincoln

Barely two months after Jackson’s visit, in January 1922, the Dunbar closed its doors forever, unable to compete with the two other theaters. One theater history source tells us that the North State Film Company made four more feature films: “A Shot in the Night” 1922, “The Devil’s Match”, “His Great Chance” and “His Last Chance”, all in 1923. But that is apparently mistaken, because just two months after the Dunbar closed, on March 20, 1922, North State petitioned the NC secretary of state to dissolve the corporation, which was done. They probably succumbed to the still intense effects of the 1921 depression. Since all four of the named films were made by Ben Strasser, the historian probably assumed that they too had been made by North State. At any rate, they have also vanished from the earth.

But something new was on the horizon, a new theater in a new building just around the corner from the Lafayette and the Rex. And, of course, William Scales was behind it. The business was incorporated on August 28, 1923. On April 21, 1924, the Lincoln Theater opened in a brand new building at 311 North Church Street. The Winston-Salem Journal described it as one of the finest theaters in the South, white or black. The manager was Abe Long, well known in the theater business both locally and regionally and former manager of the Rex. He would manage the Lincoln for many years, along with, after 1929, the balcony for black customers at the Carolina Theater. But he would be outshone in fame by his two brothers, Walter and Sylvester. Look for the saga of the Long Brothers, coming soon to this blog.

Abe Long began working as the janitor at the North Winston Graded School around 1900. But he was soon up to his neck in the theater management business at the Rex, the Lincoln and the Carolina.

The Lincoln opened with a week-long run by the Burinos, a slack-wire act featuring toe dancer Marie Burino, and the Kennedy Children, a song and dance show featuring Imogene Kennedy. A fifteen foot tall man roamed the streets urging customers to visit the new venue. The Lincoln was an instant success. The new three story building began filling up with other businesses, with doctors, dentists, lawyers, insurance offices and such on the upper floors, while a fruit stand and a barber shop occupied the spaces flanking the theater entrance. The Lincoln Barber Shop, initially under C. W. Williams, would become a local institution. In the first week of June, Madame Graves opened her beauty parlor at the front of the second floor, advertising the latest modern equipment and six years of training and experience. At its peak, the Lincoln building would boast three beauty parlors. In the basement was the Tuxedo Club, where rumor had it that a thirsty citizen might get a Manhattan or a cold beer, even during prohibition.

Winston-Salem Journal, April 14, 1928

The Lincoln had an immediate effect on the competition. The Rex closed in early 1925. And the Layfayette a year later. But the New Rex opened in the same spot on April 14, 1928 with new management, including E.B. Johnson up front, Annie Perry Riviera in the box office and Jack Kelly in the projection booth. The New Rex would survive for three years until beaten by the Great Depression. But the Lafayette would remain dark for a decade.

A comeback, decades of joy, and the end…

But in 1936, with FDR’s New Deal working to ease the depression, William Scales again saw an opportunity. He went to work remodeling the old Lafayette, which reopened on January 13, 1937 with the spicy movie “Palm Springs”. As the star of the show, Frances Langford said “I don’t want to make history…I just want to make love.” The Lafayette would never again be a first run movie house.

East Fourth and Church in the 1950s…by then the Rex was closed…identified for location only…it had become the Rex billiards and cafe…

Under the management of “Slim” Moseby in the 1940s and Jasper Jones in the 1950s, it offered westerns and action pictures, along with newsreels and serials, or “chapter pictures”. On Saturday mornings the kids got in for 9¢ to see a double feature, cartoons, an endless serial and news of the day for children. That formula kept the theater operating at a reasonable profit until integration and urban renewal arrived in the early 1960s. In 1965, the Lafayette closed for “remodeling”. It never reopened. The next year, the mighty Lincoln closed as well. A few years later, the entire block was demolished and replaced by the Phillips Building, today the home of the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Department. But many still alive remember joyous hours spent at both the Lafayette and the Lincoln.

Lincoln interior, early 1960s

 

Lincoln, early 1960s…Blanche Brown is in command of the ticket booth…William H. Tapp was the last manager…

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