- The Regal Theater and Black Culture
Clovis E. Semmes, the author of The Regal Theater and Black Culture, is a sociologist by training. His other publications include Cultural Hegemony and African American Development; Racism, Health, and Post-Industrialism: A Theory of African-American Health; and Roots of Afrocentric Thought: A Reference Guide to Negro Digest/Black World, 1961–1976. The frame for his work on culture and on the Regal Theater in particular is a version of Afrocentrism in which he assumes a pure strain of racial culture and then traces out its appropriation by what he calls “hegemonic culture”—in this case a racialized white culture. W. E. B. Du Bois’s famous statement that theater ought to be created “of, by, for, and near” blacks is thus the benchmark by which Semmes judges the value of this cultural enterprise. The Regal Theater was created for the black community, located within the black community, patronized by the black community, but not altogether controlled by blacks. And therein lies the rub for race critics. Can such a cultural enterprise exist? Spanning the years 1928 to 1968, the Regal Theater’s history provides Professor Semmes with a great historical test case about the limits of cultural ownership in a society where “urbanization and ghettoization [are] … the most important socializing forces for Black Americans” (2). To connect these histories—the aesthetic and the sociological—makes for a rich and complex history.
Semmes claims that The Regal Theater, which opened 4 February 1928 at 4719 South Parkway, currently Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, “was the greatest movie-stage-show venue in the United States ever constructed to specifically service a major African American community” (1). The theater was part of a whole neighborhood complex, the successful Forty-seventh Street business district, owned by a group of white businessmen who saw an opportunity to establish businesses catering to the burgeoning black community of Chicago’s South Side. Chicago had a tradition in which theater palaces were built in neighborhoods and the Engelstein brothers, with other businessmen, decided to locate not only a theater, but also a grand dance hall, the Savoy Ballroom, and a department store, the South Center Department Store, at the fringe of a growing black [End Page 231] neighborhood. There were a lot of “firsts” attending this new complex. It was the first major department store in the country to employ blacks as sales personnel. It was the first theater to hire black ushers. And it was the most lavishly complex built for a black community.
The theater itself was grand. It could seat three thousand, almost twice the number of the Apollo in Harlem. The lobby was 160 feet tall and could accommodate fifteen hundred people at one time. There were marble floors, silks from the Orient, chandeliers from Belgium, and Moroccan leather-covered seats (3). The theater employed a choreographer, housed an organ, its own chorus line, and sixty-five front-house personnel. There were three to four stage shows daily and a first-run movie accompanied each show. The prices were not cheap (for adults and children, respectively: thirty cents/fifteen cents for matinees; fifty/twenty cents in the evenings; sixty-five/twenty-five for Saturday, Sunday, and holidays), but the audiences were mixed, the poor and the better off (4).
Semmes exhaustively lists the performers of the live stage shows. From Duke Ellington to Aretha Franklin, the most acclaimed black talent played the Regal. As a local institution, especially in its earlier years, the Regal employed many Chicago-based artists, and Semmes claims that because the audience was black, the theater “contributed to the maintenance of an authentic Black culture because performers, Black or non-Black, had to meet the aesthetic demands and norms of Black audiences” (8). But he also shows how the tastes of this audience were influenced by other cultural movements that cannot be solely described as black. Influenced by new technology and means of distribution, in particular, records and radio, cultural tastes shifted for blacks and whites over the forty- year...