7 restored theaters and cultural arts centers along the Chitlin’ Circuit

What The green book was to road trips, the Chitlin’ Circuit was to music in the age of segregation in the United States From the 1930s to the late 60s, a collection of juke joints, dance halls, Black-owned concert and nightclubs dotted throughout the South, Midwest, and East Coast provided a welcoming space for black patrons and performers. Welcoming up-and-coming artists alongside established superstars, the Chitlin’ Circuit (named after the staple soul food chitterlings, with a nod to its post-war Jewish equivalent, the Borscht Belt) included venues local (the twinkling Mississippi 100 Men Hall) and lavish (the opulent Fox Theater in Detroit).

Not all theaters and performance spaces have withstood the changing cultural winds over the past century, but many have been restored or transformed into community arts centers or are returning to their roots, welcoming modern musicians and music lovers of all genres and from all walks of life. . Here are seven of the must-see stops on the Chitlin circuit.

A colorful mural of the Chitlin Circuit on the side of a one-story clapboard building
A colorful mural of the Chitlin circuit. | Photo: Teresa Otto

Hall of 100 Men, Mississippi

In 1922, members of the Hundred Members Debating Benevolent Association (DBA) laid the foundation stone for 100 Men Hall in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Still standing today and under new ownership since 2018, the club has been a gathering place for the black community for a century, hosting everything from baby showers to bingo games. Bay St. Louis, located just an hour east of New Orleans, was often the first stop for jazz and blues musicians on the Chitlin’ circuit on weekdays, with Monday dances featuring big names names such as BB King, Etta James and Ray Charles.

an art deco theater brick facade with a glass panel that says Carver and a marquee
The Carver Theatre. | David Brossard/Flickr

Carver Performing Arts Center, Alabama

When it opened in 1935, the Carver Theater in Birmingham was a cinema for black patrons (during segregation most first-run cinemas only catered to whites). Renovated 10 years later and outfitted with the latest in theater technology, including new seating, air conditioning, and sound and projection upgrades, the Carver’s business has steadily declined over the years, closing for good in the years 1980. The prominence of theater in the black entertainment community, as well as during the civil rights movement, prompted the City of Birmingham to take action; Recently renovated to accommodate performances, the Carver Performing Arts Center is now also home to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame.

an elaborate neon marquee for the fox theater
Photo: artistmac/Flickr

Fox Theater, Michigan

Detroit’s 5,000-seat Fox Theater opened in 1928 as a movie palace, one of the original five lavish theaters built by director William Fox (the others were in New York, Georgia, Missouri and California). Fully restored and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1988, the Fox is the largest surviving example of the chain’s major movie theaters, many of which have been demolished, restored or redeveloped. Michigan’s 10-story theater has hosted Motown performers such as Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and The Temptations, as well as modern musicians such as Jack White and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, which played its final Fox show in May 2017. .

a beige art deco style building against a blue sky with a red sign indicating
The Walker Theatre. | Photo courtesy of Visit Indy

Madam CJ Walker Theater, Indiana

Born to freed Louisiana slaves shortly after the Civil War, Madame CJ Walker became the first self-made black woman millionaire in the United States thanks to a wildly successful haircare empire. Although she left her mark in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and New York, Walker made Indiana her headquarters, opening a large manufacturing plant in Indianapolis in 1910. After being accused of a “black tax to attend a local theater, she built her own: The Walker Theater hosted performances by Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, Patti LaBelle and Ella Fitzgerald. Today, the Madam Walker Legacy Center, which features a beautifully restored main stage, is dedicated to “preserving the legacy of Madam CJ Walker by providing cultural education, promoting social justice, supporting entrepreneurship and by empowering young people to become the next generation of entrepreneurs and citizens. leaders.”

a four-story neoclassical theater facade with a brick building and a sign pointing to the Howard Theater
The Howard Theatre. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Howard Theater, Washington, D.C.

When it opened in 1910, the Howard Theater in Washington, DC was billed as “the greatest colorful theater in the world.” During the segregation, the “Théâtre du Peuple” (nicknamed by The Washington Bee) has hosted leaders such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt and ordinary music lovers who have gathered to see Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Dizzy Gillespie, The Supremes, James Brown and countless others. After riots devastated the neighborhood in 1968, the Beaux-Arts building gradually fell into disrepair, closing in 1980; after 2 years of extensive renovations, the Howard Theater reopened in 2012 with performances by Wanda Sykes, Blue Oyster Cult and Chaka Khan.

a red and yellow vertical neon sign for the facade of the apollo theater in new york
The Theater of Apollo. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Apollo Theatre, New York

Located on West 125th Street between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Frederick Douglass Boulevards in Harlem, the 1,506-seat Apollo Theater opened as Hurtig & Seamon’s New White-only Burlesque Theater in 1914. Probably best known to modern audiences for the national – syndicated television variety show Show at the Apollon (which ran from 1987 to 2008 and was restarted in 2018), the neoclassical theater opened up to black patrons and performers in 1934, renaming itself the Apollo. Also known for hosting strangers on “Amateur Night”, the Apollo stage is credited with launching the careers of dozens of superstars, including Billie Holiday, James Brown, the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder and Jimi Hendrix (the guitarist won first place in an amateur musician contest at the Apollo 5 years before playing at Woodstock).

a striped neon sign at night at the facade for the lyrical theater
The Lyric Theater. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Lyric Theater and Cultural Arts Center, Kentucky

The Lyric Theater, located in Lexington, Kentucky, was originally built as a movie theater. From 1948 until the early 1960s, the art deco theater became a cultural icon for the black community, hosting fashion shows, vaudeville acts, and entertainers such as Count Basie and BB King. Several black-owned businesses have opened next to the theater, making the neighborhood a destination. Lyric’s business steadily declined over the years, and an ultimate return to showing films, including Saturday morning cartoons and noir cowboy films, failed. After its closure in 1963, the building sat empty and neglected for decades, finally reopening in 2010 as a community and cultural arts center after a city-managed renovation.

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