Introduction to the Douglass Theatre in Macon
Charles Henry Douglass (portrayed in Vanishing Georgia image [bib166]) was born on February 17, 1870, the son of Charles Douglass (a carpenter from Virginia) and his wife Ellen. Early in life he worked to supplement the family's income while attending school, and after both parents died, he supported his two sisters while they attended school. After his sisters married, Douglass left Macon, working at various jobs, until he returned in 1898 to begin his long and very successful business career in the city.
In 1901, while working as Director of the Georgia Loan and Savings Company, Douglass met his future wife, Fannie Appling, who worked there as assistant cashier. He continued working for this company until 1905, and at the same time began investing in other businesses, including the Ocmulgee Park Theatre, which he operated between 1904 and 1906. He sold that theater lease in 1906 and bought an existing building at 361 Broadway; prior to 1909, he had established the adjacent Colonial Hotel at 363 Broadway. Douglass organized and managed the "Florida Blossom Minstrels and Comedy Company" beginning in 1907, and sold out his interest to partner Peter Worthey in 1911. During this early theatrical venture, he gained valuable experience and contacts that would later prove very useful in operating the Douglass Theatre.
Douglass developed and managed the highly successful Douglass Theatre complex (see "The Douglass Theatre") from 1911 until his death in 1940 (except for the period between 1927 and 1929 when the Theatre was leased or sold to Benjamin W. Stein). After Douglass' death in 1940, his wife, who died in 1971, and sons continued to operate the Theatre until it closed in 1973. Throughout his long and successful life, Douglass made many important contributions to Macon's African American community and indeed to the entire city. The modern restoration and renewed operation of the Douglass Theatre is a fitting recognition of his significant achievements. (For additional details about Douglass, see James A. Toth, Preservation Study of the Douglass Theater, Macon, Georgia, for the City of Macon, draft of July 1, 1980, section 4.1 entitled "Charles Henry Douglass" within the "Historical Overview".)
The Douglass Theatre became Macon's primary venue for black entertainment during the early twentieth century. The Theatre, part of a larger complex that also included a hotel for blacks, evolved significantly over the years, in terms of physical layout as well as entertainment programming.
The Original Douglass Theatre
The original Douglass Theatre (see Vanishing Georgia image [bib156], which opened in 1912, was constructed inside an existing structure at 363 Broadway (then called Fourth Street). As indicated in the contract letter [dbr010], the R.E. Clark and Son firm provided plaster ornaments for the theater's walls, ceiling, and proscenium. This early facility, with a seating capacity of 350, offered primarily vaudeville acts and other live entertainment, supplemented by silent pictures.
An Interim Douglass Theatre
In 1917, Douglass opened another theater further down the street at 1223 Broadway, but after only a few years, he abandoned that modest theater (eventually converting it to office space), and focused instead on developing a bigger and more sophisticated theatrical facility adjacent to his original theater.
The New Douglass Theatre
The New Douglass Theatre opened in 1921 at 355-359 Broadway (adjacent to the Douglass hotel at 361-363 Broadway), and offered 750-800 seats in a much more sophisticated and highly ornamented theatrical facility. (For a detailed historic architectural study of the Douglass Theatre complex, see James A. Toth, Preservation Study of the Douglass Theater, Macon, Georgia, for the City of Macon, draft of July 1, 1980, sections 4.2-4.4 within the "Historical Overview".) In keeping with evolving entertainment trends, the New Douglass Theatre was designed primarily to show movies, although live entertainment remained an important aspect of the Theatre's entertainment offerings. For a representative sampling of the Theatre's extensive historic programming, please see the later sections of this essay which provide many examples of the Theatre's live performances and motion pictures during the 1920s.
The Vanishing Georgia collection includes several views of the new Douglass Theatre. An interior view [bib157] depicts the stage and seating as they appeared in the 1920s. Exterior views [bib158] and [bib165] show the Douglass Theatre and Hotel complex as it appeared in the 1950s.
Included among the Douglass Theatre business records are many historical items that provide fascinating insights into the operation of Douglass' enterprises, especially the new Theatre, in the mid-1920s:
In mid 1927, C. H. Douglass sold or leased the Douglass Theatre to Benjamin W. Stein of Valdosta (Douglass turned his attention to the Middle Georgia Savings and Investment Company, where he served as its president). Stein operated the Douglass Theatre until May 1929. The business records of the Douglass Theatre provide much insight into the period of Stein's operation of the Douglass Theatre:
By mid-1928, Ben Stein had grown increasingly worried about the decreasing profitability of the Douglass Theatre, and began to seek alternative solutions. In a July 9, 1928 letter [dbr096] responding to a business proposition from Stein, L.D. Joel discouraged Stein from converting the facility to a theater for "white people," suggesting he work with his brother to make the Douglass Theatre a success under existing policy instead; he offered "to endorse any paper that you may give to purchase same from the present stockholders."
However, in May 1929, C. H. Douglass repurchased a controlling interest in the Douglass Theatre, and during the 1930s, engaged the Bijou Management Company to manage it. After the elder Douglass died in 1940, his wife Fannie and sons Charles Henry (who died in 1945), and Peter G. (who died in 1973), took over the operation of the Douglass Theatre complex. In 1958, The Teenage Party, a live talent show broadcast that featured local DJ Hamp Swain provided exposure to local performers such as Otis Redding. For several years afterward, the Theatre prospered as a venue for a new generation of African American performers; after the death of Peter G. Douglass in 1973, the Douglass Theatre closed. (For additional history of the Douglass Theatre, see James A. Toth, Preservation Study of the Douglass Theater, Macon, Georgia, for the City of Macon, draft of July 1, 1980, subsections 4.2 ("The Douglass Theater Complex"), 4.21 ("The Original Douglass Theater"), and 4.22 ("The New Theater") within the "Historical Overview" section.)
Douglas Theatre business records contain historic items that help preserve the history of the live performances held at the Theatre during the 1920s. In keeping with the intended African American audience, the performers were mostly, but not exclusively, African Americans. The Theatre was an important stop on the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA) black vaudeville circuit.
Theatre Owners Booking Association
The Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA) provided the major vaudeville circuit in the South during the 1920s for African American entertainers performing in African American theaters. Charles H. Douglass was on the Board of TOBA. Although there was an antecedent organization formed in 1909, the Tennessee-based TOBA was formally reorganized in 1920 by southern and midwestern theater owners in response to the many logistical booking problems that arose with the rapid expansion of African American theaters during the 1910s. However, many performers developed a dislike for difficult TOBA policies, leading them to cynically revise the organizational acronym to mean "Tough on Black Asses."
Outside of Atlanta, the Douglass Theatre in Macon was the major TOBA venue in Georgia. Most of the Douglass Theatre live performance programming involved TOBA contracts. Douglass Theatre business records include numerous contracts and letters relating to TOBA--indeed, its TOBA materials may constitute one of the largest surviving collections of TOBA documentation, making it a very important resource for scholarly work on African American entertainment.
Here are several historic items from the Douglass Theatre that provide insights into TOBA operations:
Although many who played at the Douglass during its vaudeville heyday in the 1920s have largely been forgotten, some outstanding performers achieved significant reputations that transcended their particular time and place, leaving enduring legacies that still echo in today's music and entertainment:
Ma Rainey is widely known as the "Mother of the Blues." For biographical information about this important founder of classic blues, see the article "Gertrude 'Ma' Rainey (1886-1939)" in the New Georgia Encyclopedia.
Bessie Smith, sometimes called "Empress of the Blues," began her career in 1912 singing in the same show as Ma Rainey, and went on to a successful performing and recording career; she also appeared in the film St. Louis Blues in 1929. Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1894, and died in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1937.
Ida Cox was another pioneering singer who helped to establish the female blues genre. For biographical information, see the article "Ida Cox (1896-1967)" in the New Georgia Encyclopedia.
Butterbeans and Susie was the stage name for the black vaudeville comedy team of Jodie Edwards (1895-1967) and Susie Hawthorne (1896-1963), who married on stage in 1917, and subsequently enjoyed a highly successful career together. They are said to have invented the famous routine that George Burns and Gracie Allen later popularized in mainstream comedy.
A Sampling of 1920s Live Performances
Here is a sampling of the many live performances at the Douglass Theatre during the 1920s, which reveal an amazing range of performing talents and specialties:
TOBA's Sam Reevin wrote to C.H. Douglass on December 15, 1924 [dbr062] confirming acts for the following week--their pronounced variety was typical of vaudeville: Miss Marie Boatner and partner, DeWayne Niles the acrobat, and Doorkey Singleton the "eccentric" dancer.
An undated letter [dbr061] to Mr. Douglass from escape artist M. Martinelli displayed an image of the performer wrapped in chains-- similar to an unusual performance specialty made famous by Harry Houdini.
Although most vaudeville fare was decidedly secular, some performances emphasized religious content. Joseph Jones' letter [dbr053] of 30 Jul 1925 promoted the play Thy Will Be Done, an African American sacred drama. Handbills [dbr77] for a later 1929 performance (at the Strand Theatre) provide information about the storyline and the actors of this religious performance.
Church Benefit Acts
In another performance conducted for religious purposes, a May 28, 1925 letter [dbr052] from H.H. Dudley (a grocer in Dublin, Georgia) asked Douglass Theatre for assistance in booking acts to benefit the Ladies of Dublin, a club belonging to the St. Paul A.M.E. Church.
Melba, Daniels, and Mitchell
The 10 Sep 1927 contract [dbr050] with Ben Stein engaged Melba, Daniels, and Mitchell, a vaudeville musical comedy and drama team of six performers, to play at the Douglass Theatre.
The Bandana Girls
An agreement dated December 12, 1927 [dbr048] between TOBA and Ben Stein scheduled Boisy De Legge and the Bandana Girls for December 19-21 at the Douglass Theatre. A circular [dbr078] provides images and details of the Bandana Girls musical revue (as played at the Liberty Theatre).
A September 7, 1927 letter [dbr067] from TOBA president Milton Starr to Douglass Theatre's Ben Stein attempted to secure better terms for Eddie Lemons' Dashing Dinah show, while the follow-up letter [dbr057] of September 10, 1927 from Milton Starr indicates Stein's acceptance of the Lemons' offering. Note also, in the second letter, that Starr mentions no-show problems with Ma Rainey.
A February 4, 1928 letter [dbr70] from TOBA discussed Ben Stein's refusal to pay 60% for Irvin Miller's Desires show. In the letter, Milton Starr tried his best to convince Stein to accept the terms, or lose a popular show.
Original Silas Green from New Orleans
A March 19, 1928 letter [dbr059] from Charles Collier, owner of this traveling tent show based in Macon, discussed logistics for an upcoming performance at Douglass Theatre. Note that the elaborate letterhead includes exterior and interior images of the company's private railroad car.
Etheopian (sic) Serenaders
A April 3, 1929 letter [dbr051] from Loyd Pinckney of Boston sought to perform with his orchestra (whose novelty name was the Etheopian (sic) Serenaders) at Douglass Theatre. Pinckney and his colleagues were students at the New England Conservatory of Music, and his orchestra members paid their tuition through such performances, which they hoped to expand to the South. Note that Pinckney, an experienced jazz and classical pianist, also offered to perform solo if that would better suit the situation.
Chicago Hot Shots
The Douglass Theatre advertising circular [dbr072] for the Chicago Hot Shots featured a substantial cast for the week starting May 20, 1929: Walker and Herron, Skating Mack, the Brown Skin Blue Belle Beauty Chorus, Cliff Ross, Kid and Skeet Brown with the Dancing Maniacs, and Cuney Conner at the Piano--as well as a "Midnight Ramble."
Macurio's Indian Vaudeville Company
A Douglass Theatre circular [dbr075] advertised "Western Novelty Acts" from Macurio's Indian Vaudeville Company, including "Shooting, Music, Roping, Singing and Dancing"-- note that the cast included Cherokee Jack Macurio and Crow Chief White Eagle.
Happy Go Lucky
The advertising materials [dbr076] for the vaudeville show Happy Go Lucky featured several solo and team performers, a ten-member female chorus, and a jazz band with banjo, cornet, piano, and drums. (The circular advertises the Star Theatre in Savannah, but the show also appeared at the Douglass Theatre.)
After Ben Stein became manager/owner of the Douglass Theatre in 1927, he added competitive boxing events to the Theatre's entertainment agenda. Several Douglass Theatre business record items document (sometimes convoluted) negotiations and logistics for these sporting events:
When Charles H. Douglass opened his new Douglass Theatre in 1921, the new theater interior was laid out so as to better accommodate the showing of motion pictures (although live performances still played a significant role in the theater's entertainment programming). During this period, they were silent films, with live musical accompaniment (usually piano or organ). "Talkies" became commercially available in the late 1920s--after re-acquiring ownership of the theater in May 1929, Douglass made the transition to the sound era of movies.
Although the Douglass Theatre offered some mainstream movie fare, motion pictures with black casts, and especially films made by black movie makers, were very popular with the Theatre's African American audience. These films--sometimes called "race movies"--aimed to offset the negative stereotyping often seen in mainstream movies of the period. Later sections of this essay highlight some important African American movie companies, along with some white-owned companies that offered movies intended for African American audiences.
Operating a movie theater presented many challenges. Several Douglass Theatre records illustrate various operational aspects of the theater business:
The renowned Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951) was without doubt the most accomplished--and subsequently the most widely studied--of the early African American film makers. After working as a railway porter, South Dakota homesteader, and author earlier in life, he created his own motion picture company and became the first African American film maker in 1919. As one of the very few African American film makers to survive the introduction of sound, he continued making movies until 1948. His prodigious output included at least forty-five feature films and seven novels. Douglass Theatre showed many Micheaux films, as indicated by the following documents from the Douglass collection:
Some 1920s Film Companies and Their Silent Movies
Douglass Theatre presented movies by Oscar Micheaux and other African American film makers, as well as movies produced by white-owned companies but intended for African American audiences. Here is a sampling from the business records of the Douglass Theatre:
Maurice Film Corporation
This African American film company, owned by Richard Maurice, was based in Detroit.
Norman Film Manufacturing Company
This white independent film company, based in Jacksonville (Florida), specialized in adventure films for African American audiences.
Colored Players Film Corporation
This white-owned company was based in Philadelphia (however, African American vaudevillian Sherman Dudley, star of REOL's Easy Money, later became the company president).
REOL Productions Corporation
This white-owned film company, based in New York, released ten films for African American audiences.
Ebony Film Company
This white-owned company was based in Chicago.
Famous Artists Corporation of America
This white-owned company, based in Philadelphia, produced race movies.
Associated Negro Picture Distributors
Other Silent Films
A 1925 advertising card [dbr074] promoted the silent films Singer Jim McKee, Into the Net, The White Tiger, The Go-Getter Series, Alias the Night Wind, Fun from the Press, Tempest Cody, Try and Get It, The Educator, In Fast Company, Yukon Jake, The Iron Man, and Fast and Fearless. (These short films were shown at Douglass Theatre in conjunction with vaudeville acts, including Butterbeans and Susie.)
A July 17, 1925 letter [dbr014] from Progress Pictures mentioned advertising materials for the 1921 North State Film Corporation movie A Giant of His Race, and responded to complaints about the lack of action in some black westerns.
An September 8, 1925 letter [dbr015] from the Western Film Producing Company and Booking Exchange provided a sales pitch for the film The Flames of Wrath.
A 1928 handbill [dbr041] promoted films for the week of November 25 including The Coward, The Winning of Barbara Worth, The Devil's Skipper, The Vanishing Pioneer, Tea for Two, and Tom's Gang.
Early "Talkies" at Douglass Theatre
The introduction of sound into motion pictures required additional equipment and processes, but few African American film makers had access to the financial resources necessary to successfully pursue this new technology. Consequently, most talkies shown at the Douglass Theatre during this period were made by mainstream studios.
A 1928 handbill [dbr039] advertised the November 4-5 showing of The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length talkie. Note the prominent image of Al Jolson in blackface.
A four-page 1929 circular [dbr040] promoted four films to be shown November 4-9: The Drifter, Four Sons, Jazz Age, and Vanishing Hoofs. The cover features popular western actor Tom Mix.
A December 1, 1929 [dbr073] handbill promoted the films The St. Louis Blues, The Unholy Night, A Texan's Honor, and Thundering Thru. Paramount's The St. Louis Blues was notable for its "all-star colored cast"--including Bessie Smith's only filmed performance.
In 1978, the city of Macon became the owner of the Douglass Theatre, and proceeded to undertake a thorough restoration and expansion of the entire Douglass complex. On January 11, 1997, the restored Douglass Theatre opened to the public, with state-of-the-art equipment for film and live entertainment. For information about the restored facility with its varied programming and services for the community, visit the web site at http://www.douglasstheatre.org.
With the restored Douglass Theatre in operation again, the inspiring legacy of Charles Henry Douglass lives on in Macon!
Edward A. Johnson