When we think of the history of the traditional, American movie going, a number of images come to mind: the mighty organ accompanying a movie palace’s silent-era feature, the Iconic searchlights proclaiming a Golden Age Hollywood premiere, teenagers cruising at the local drive in, an audience of otherwise sensibly attired adults wearing cardboard, and young adults carrying five dollar bills to the Cineplex at the end of the mall in order to see the latest sequel.
But while these iconic, even stereotypical, images suggest something of the truth behind the American movie theater’s history, they also omit much of the social reality that has co-existed along with these instances of the mainstream filmgoing experience. While Hollywood features and first-run urban theaters may have greater single importance than any other mode of exhibition, a number of other important alternatives have fleshed out audiences’ encounters with film.
One such alternative, with a fascinating yet understudied history all its own, was the Black movie house circuit that existed in the United States from (at least) 1907 until the 1970’s (Crafton 412). With the project in mind of examining the cultural, social, and economic history of Black film theaters. I will discuss in this essay the development of Black film theaters in Austin, Texas, focusing especially on that city’s longest standing and most prominent “show”, the Harlem Theater.
Although movies came to the Texas capital before the turn of the century and all-movie theaters began to proliferate there during America’s post-1905 nickelodeon boom, the first recorded “colored” film theater – the Dixie-Dale – opened in Austin in 1920 under the management of Joseph Trammell. I found no other details about Trammell or the Dixie-Dale, but it is recorded that after two years the theater was renamed the Lincoln and managed by A. C. Lawson until it closed in 1928 or 1929.
Austin also supported a second Black movie house in the 1920s. The Lyric, which opened in 1922, just one block east of the downtown Lincoln, was owned and operated by Dr. Everett H. Givens, a practicing dentist (with an office next door) who would become Austin’s most prominent Black civic leader from the 1930s until his death in 1962. For reasons unclear at this point, Dr. Givens’ Lyric, which changed its name to the Dunbar when A. C. Lawson took over its management in 1929, survived the Lincoln by a few years, closing in 1931.
Whether the fist Black film theaters in Austin closed due to the Depression, the cost of converting to sound, or some other reason, is impossible to judge given the paucity of data available about these enterprises. However, placing the existence of the Lincoln and the Lyric in the contexts of both African American life in Austin and the concurrent national Black film theater scene enhances a historical understanding of these two houses both as business and as entertainment venues. From a national perspective, we know that the motion picture theater, with its roots in the Jim Crow era, had always been subject to racial segregation.
Sometimes Black patrons were restricted to balconies or other special sections of the theater, but Black-only theaters were common in the United States from at least 1910, a year when a Black newspaper in Washington wrote matter-of-factly that “there are separate motion picture theaters among the whites and blacks in this country”(Washington Bee 4). Although at the turn of the century “there was hardly a theater for colored people in the entire United States” (Negro Yearbook, 24), by 1925, there were at least 425 Black theaters (of all types), virtually all of which offered films “in whole or part.
Of these, nearly half were, like the Lyric and possibly the Lincoln, Black-owned (Negro Yearbook, 379). But ownership of Black movie houses, in contrast to the first-run, White theaters of the day, was not done by regional or national chains, nor by affiliated circuits; because houses operated independently, the dynamics of local conditions of affected theaters like the Lincoln as much as national structure did. Historically, social and economic conditions changed greatly for Austin’s Black movie houses appeared.
During and after Reconstruction, Black neighborhoods had existed in several locations around Austin: Clarksville in west Austin, Kincheonville to the south, Gregoryville in East Austin, Masontown in the southeast. Horse’s Pasture and Wheatville to the north, and so on (Austin American-Statesman, D41). Compared to other towns of the time, particularly in the South, race relations were fairly calm, albeit within the practice of institutionalized racism.
The town boasted “three colleges and institutions for colored people,” maintained some neighborhoods (such as Masontown) that were racially integrated among Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, and Asians, and in general obtained a reputation as a town without the major problems of racial violence that plagued most American communities. But during the ‘teens segregation patterns began to develop’ (Freeman).
In 1919 a White representative of the young NAACp was beaten by a White mob in the middle of downtown, and in the 1920s “the city of Austin created a ‘Negro district’ in East Austin… inducing blacks to move there” by implementing though zoning laws elsewhere (Austin American-Statesman, D41). So it was that the majority of Austin’s African American population (which has consistently remained at just below 20 percent of Austin’s total) became concentrated in an area east of downtown and between 12th Street to the north and 7th Street to the south.
Not surprisingly, then, both of Austin’s silent-era Black theaters were built on East 6th Street, near the racial dividing line of East Avenue, within the only downtown shopping and dining district that served Black patrons, yet away from the White theater district on the city’s main thoroughfare of Congress Avenue. I could uncover little information, however, that would indicate the nature or reception of these early movie houses. Longtime Austin resident I. C. Jones recalled visiting the Lincoln as a child, where he remembers a piano player accompanying the motion picture entertainment.
Lonnie Bell, who wrote for the Black press in Austin for 50 years, indicates that in the 1920s both the Lyric and the “Lawson Lincoln Theater” were among the very few venues for Black entertainment in the city and so “did well before the Great Depression in ’29. ” (10)Other information about Everett Givens also indicates that he made the Lyric/Dunbar into a focal point for the Black community, viewing the theater as a civic improvement projects as much as a business investment. Flachmeier 32) That these two movie houses were well received an supported by the Black community can also be inferred from the fact that a 1940 account of Austin history prepared by students at Tiltson College (a Black institution) referred to the era of 1905 to 1929 as a time when “privately owned amusement centers were developed” by Blacks – even though no other Black amusements of second were instituted during this period (Brewer 34). As I mentioned earlier, the cause for these theaters’ demise cannot be established absolutely, but several factors undoubtedly offer reasonable explanations.
Bell’s assertion that it was the economic devastation of the Depression that closed the Lincoln and Dunbar makes logical economic sense. Black theater owners, like even the big-time operators, would have been hit hard as the US economy collapsed. Moreover, inasmuch as movie tickets are purchased with “disposable” income, Black patrons would have been especially likely to curtail their moviegoing since even before the Depression Blacks in Austin earned only one-half the wage of White workers.
More specifically, both houses in Austin would have found it even more difficult to cope with the hard times if they attempted to make the costly transition to sound technology in the late twenties or early thirties. The Dallas Film Board o Trade’s statistics on Texas theaters indicate that many theaters, especially independently operated ones, closed in the early thirties, having no sound. (In Austin, two of the five White houses, the Crescent and Star, also went out of business in 1929 to 1931. Furthermore, one-third of Texas’ 30 “colored theaters” were listed as “closed, no sound” by the mid-1930s. Other factors may have led to the closure of the Lincoln and Dunbar, but, given the theaters’ dependence on the patron-age of a small, economically marginalized population, in the midst of a severe depression their failure is not surprising. But the history of Black film theaters in Austin did not end with the closing of the Dunbar in 1931.
In that same year, real estate was purchased and construction begun on a new movie house that would serve as the hub of Black filmgoing in Austin for the next 40 years. The Harlem Theater, which opened on October 5, 1935 (Green 9), distinguished itself from the earlier theaters – and all subsequent ones – by being located in the heart of East Austin, at 1800 E. 12 Street, where it could better attract Black moviegoers.
However, before discussing the reasons for the Harlem’s longevity, I point out that although it was Austin’s only exclusively Black theater, it was not without its competitor for Black audiences. All accounts of Austin in the 1930s and forties agree that the Ritz Theater was the only other house that admitted Black patrons on a regular basis, though customers there were limited to balcony seating and made to use a separate entrance.
The Ritz, located on the same block of East 6th street where the Lincoln operated, opened in 1930 under White management, showing a variety of second-run Hollywood films. Manager J. J. Hegman (and his son after him) maintained the segregated seating policy until the Ritz’s closing in the early 1960s. More prominent Austin houses, such as those first-run members of the prestigious Interstate Theater Fircuit (the Paramount, Texas, State and Queen), advertised “colored midnight shows” from time to time as part of the chain’s overall marketing scheme (1942 Yearbook).
Thus, while there was some competition for the Black filmgoing audience, segregated, White-managed theaters did not attempt to offer African Americans the filmgoing experience and environment of an all-Black house like the Harlem; however, the Ritz balcony and special events at other White movie establishments did continue to cultivate and maintain Black filmgoing in the Depression, when no Black Austin theaters were open.
Harlem were filled by Black employees with the single exception of the projectionists. But for a small neighborhood theater like the Harlem, any sort of product differentiation whether it was with films, live acts, or ambience would have failed to produce enough box offices for the theater’s survival. As with any theater, the bulk of the profit came not from fifteen and twenty-five cent admissions, but from concessions. On this count, the Harlem again distinguished itself as unique among Austin theaters.
In addition to the usual popcorn, candy and soft drink sales, the Harlem Theater operated a confectionery. When the Harlem opened in the midst of America’s Depression in late 1935, the theater soon established itself as one of Austin’s most visible and stable Black-owned businesses. In film industry terms, the Harlem’s success was small. With only 14,000 African American residents in 1935, Austin’s marketplace for Black films was extremely limited, and the theater never expanded nor led to a chain of others.
But, through a combination of strategic location, product differentiation, managerial conservatism, and diversification, the Harlem Theater was able to become a profitable local business in the midst of an industry whose structure tended to favor national giants. Like the Lyric before it, the Harlem was established by a middle-class, Black Austin native who had been educated at Tillotson College and operated successfully in other local business before embarking on a risky career in the amusement industry.
But George F. Jones, who was already in his forties when he opened the Harlem, also had some experience in programming films for Black audiences. His older brother Evie had purchased an Edison projector in the ‘teens and traveled to tent shows in the South and Black churches in Philadelphia showing “church movies” (that is, filmed passion plays) to all-Black audiences. After college, five years as a postal clerk, and ten years as a bookkeeper. George F. Jones himself had worked as the head of Prairie View, Texas’ Auditorium (a film theater) while employed as a clerk at Prairie View State College (1925-35) (Brewer 7). With his wife, Sadie, a Prairie View graduate and educator, Jones was active in the Austin real estate market and their “co-partnership” became known for “accumulating valuable real estate holdings. ” For the last two decades of his life Jones devoted most of his efforts to managing the Harlem, setting up residence next door to the corner theater upon his return to Austin from Prairie View.
While his establishment may not have been unique for its time (there were more than three or four hundred Black theaters in the country), the Harlem was remarkable for being only one of seven US theaters owned and operated by Blacks (The Early Days in East Austin, D42). As an experienced theater manager, real estate buyer, and member of Austin’s African American community. George Jones no doubt realized the importance of the theater’s strategic location in determining its success at attracting movegoers.
East 12th Street was essentially the Main Street of East Austin (Early Days in East Austin, D42). The area around the Harlem represented a microcosm of African American life: it was both a quiet neighborhood of residences, churches, grocers, drug stores beauty shops, and cafes, and a place to be “going up on the cuts” – a street where the action and entertainment were, in the form of taverns, beer joints, and (a block away) the Cotton Club and Paradise Inn for music and dancing.
The Harlem was also part of “The End,” that area around 12th and Chicon Streets (one block away) where Austin’s streetcars, until their cessation in 1940, stopped and turned back toward downtown. In essence, those factors which determined that White theaters were centrally located along Congers Avenue – transportation proximity, pedestrian traffic, shopping convenience, high visibility – similarly made East 12th the choice location for a successful Black movie house.