Inside LA Stage History: The Lincoln Theater and The Lafayette Players

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Written by Julio Martinez

In the 1910s and 1920s, as the population of Los Angeles began to expand into a national cosmopolitan community, large theaters were opened in Downtown L.A., principally in what is now known as the Broadway Theater District. One of the Broadway gems was The Palace, built in 1911, Los Angeles’s major home for touring Broadway shows and vaudeville acts. Many artists considered it the perfect performance space. Not so perfect were the societal edicts of the day, which relegated the Palace’s upper area as the “Negro balcony,” with bench seating, and a segregated stairwell and lounge area. Access to the balcony was from the alley with no access to the rest of the theater. In fact, as a matter of policy, African Americans were either excluded from all of Los Angeles’s major theaters or restricted to “colored only” seating areas.

To counter this, by the mid-1920s a number of cultural and business institutions catering to the African-American population of Los Angeles, opened their own center along a one-mile stretch of South Central Avenue, which became known as the Central Avenue Corridor. This included Dreamland Rink, the Murray Pocket Billiard Emporium and Cigar Stand, the 28th Street YMCA, Second Baptist Church, Sidney P. Dones Company (offering real estate, insurance and legal services), the California Eagle Newspaper, the Dunbar Hotel and the Lincoln Theater. The area remained the hub of the African American community in Los Angeles from the 1920s to the 1950s, with the Lincoln Theater as its cultural beacon.

Lincoln Theatre lobby area

The Lincoln, built between 1926 and 1927, was an example of Moorish Revival Architecture. At a cost of $500,000, the theater was constructed in the style of a grand movie palace, with a large stage, orchestra pit, and seating for 2,100 persons. Designed by architect John Paxton Perrine (1886–1972), who designed many of Southern California’s movie palaces in the 1920s, The Lincoln was considered by the California Eagle, “the finest and most beautiful theater in the country built exclusively for race patronage.”

The Lincoln was managed and directed by Jules Wolf, who featured live theater, musical acts, talent shows, vaudeville, and motion pictures, including live performances by the leading African-American performers of the era, including Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington and singer Billie Holiday. It was the largest of several theaters along the Central Avenue Corridor offering entertainment to the African-American community. Three others (the Tivoli, Angelus and Hub Theaters) have since been demolished.

The Lincoln Theater opened in October 1927. A sixteen-girl chorus line known as the “Chocolate Scandals” and a house band, Curtis Mosby’s Dixieland Blue Blowers, provided the entertainment at an invitation-only premiere on October 6, 1927. The Lincoln might have remained merely an outlet for touring vaudeville and musical entertainment to complement its movie features if the nation-wide economic crises known as the Depression hadn’t brought them the Lafayette Players from New York in 1928.

Anita Bush

The Lafayette Players was started by a young performer named Anita Bush. Anita was the daughter of a costumer from Harlem, making outfits for many of the white performers in New York. Anita and her sister had been given the job of delivering many of the costumes. Because of that, they got to see legitimate dramas in theaters where blacks were not permitted. At age 20, Anita Bush decided this needed to change.

In 1915, she teamed with Marie Downs, the manager of a rundown Harlem theater named the Lafayette.  The Lafayette Players obtained stock company rights to Broadway and off Broadway shows.  Some actors cast in the Lafayette Players included Evelyn Preer. Edna Morton, Lawrence Chenault, Canada Lee. Rose McClendon, Oscar Micheaux, Charles S. Gilpin and Clarence Muse.  Muse was acclaimed for his lead role performance in the Lafayette Players staging of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Muse stated the play was relevant to black actors and audiences “because, in a way, it was every black man’s story. Black men, too, have been split creatures inhabiting one body.”

Evelyn Preer as Sadie Thompson

The arranger, James P. Johnson, was involved for a while as well as the famous director Edgar Forrest. For 12 years theywere successful enough to establish repertory companies in four cities in the Midwest and East coast but when the Depression started taking its toll, the performers were the first to get hit.  In 1928, a white company, Quality Amusement Corporation, led by Robert Levy, invited the nearly bankrupt Lafayette to Los Angeles, making their debut at the Lincoln Theater with Somerset Maugham’s Rain, featuring Evelyn Preer as Sadie Thompson. Ticket prices were thirty cents for adults, 10 cents for children. Loges cost forty cents. Feeling the lure of this city, with its active Black community and a burgeoning film industry, the Lafayette actors decided to stay and made the Lincoln their home.

Though catering to the African-American community, the Lincoln became popular with the city’s white audiences as well. In May 1928, Los Angeles Times columnist Lee Shippey wrote, “It is a big, well-appointed theater in which all of the actors and almost all of the auditors are Negroes. But many white people crowd in, too, because the chance to see Negro actors of real ability appearing for their own people rather than appearing as Negroes from the white man’s point of view is one that doesn’t come to one in every city.”

Dooley Wilson

The Lafayette supplemented the casting of productions with performers from the Central Avenue community, including members of the Emmanuel Hall Chorus, which often performed concerts at the Lincoln. Soon, well-known Black stage actors from around the U.S. found their way to the Lincoln, including Nina Mae McKinney (known as “The Black Garbo”) and Dooley Wilson (Sam in Casablanca). Their performances attracted Hollywood celebrities, including Charlie Chaplin, Irving Thalberg, Janet Gaynor and Fanny Brice.

By 1932, the Lafayette Players disbanded, its members fleeing for better paying film work in Hollywood. But the Lincoln Theater continued to beckon New York productions, sending stock touring companies to Los Angeles and also presented highly successful Black Vaudeville acts. From the 1930s to the 1950s, the Lincoln was sometimes called the “West Coast Apollo” because it featured many of the same acts as Harlem’s Apollo Theater. The Sentinel Newspaper began publishing in 1931 and presented annual Christmas shows at the Lincoln. These shows featured a range of talents that included Pigmeat Markham, Benny Carter and his band, Lionel Hampton, Slim Gaillard, saxophonist Marshall Royal, The Delta Rhythm Boys, Big Joe Turner and others.

By the early 40s, the Lincoln was presenting shows that had appeared off Broadway in New York, attracting large audiences.  The theater featured a 15-member pit band. One of the visiting musicals was a road company of Shuffle Along, which featured a talented pianist name Nat “King” Cole and his wife Nadine, a dancer who wrote one of Nat’s hits, “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” The show got stranded in L.A. and Cole decided to stay in town.

Eldridge Cleaver

Concerts at the Lincoln in the post-World War II era attracted diverse audiences that included the likes of choreographer Alvin Ailey, activist Eldridge Cleaver, and songwriter Eden Ahbez. It was outside the Lincoln in the late 1940s that a bearded Ahbez, wearing sandals, handed the song, “Nature Boy,” to Nat King Cole’s road manager.

By the 1950s, the inroad of network television began to siphon off the Lincoln Theater audience.  In 1962, the Lincoln Theater was sold to the First Jurisdiction of the Church of God in Christ and became known as “The Crouch Temple” operated by Bishop Samuel M. Crouch. The theater was later operated as the Iglesia de Cristo Ministries Juda.

In 2009, the theater was deemed to satisfy the registration requirements set forth in a multiple property submission study, to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  And unlike many Los Angles cultural landmarks, the building is still standing today.

Julio Martinez

Julio Martinez

Julio pens the weekly LA STAGE Insider column for @ This Stage Magazine, as well as the monthly LA STAGE History column. He is a recurring contributor to Written By (the monthly publication of the Writer’s Guild of America) and is the TeleVision columnist for Latin Heat Entertainment. On air, he hosts the weekly Arts in Review program for KPFK 90.7 FM. An active journalist for over 30 years, Julio’s articles and reviews have appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, Daily Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, L.A. Weekly, Stage Raw, Backstage West, Westways Magazine, and Drama-Logue Magazine, among others.