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The Pekin

The Rise and Fall of Chicago’s First Black-Owned Theater

Thomas Bauman

Publication Year: 2014

In 1904, political operator and gambling boss Robert T. Motts opened the Pekin Theater in Chicago. Dubbed the "Temple of Music," the Pekin became one of the country's most prestigious African American cultural institutions, renowned for its all-black stock company and school for actors, an orchestra able to play ragtime and opera with equal brilliance, and a repertoire of original musical comedies.A missing chapter in African American theatrical history, Bauman's saga presents how Motts used his entrepreneurial acumen to create a successful black-owned enterprise. Concentrating on institutional history, Bauman explores the Pekin's philosophy of hiring only African American staff, its embrace of multi-racial upper class audiences, and its ready assumption of roles as diverse as community center, social club, and fundraising instrument.The Pekin's prestige and profitability faltered after Motts' death in 1911 as his heirs lacked his savvy, and African American elites turned away from pure entertainment in favor of spiritual uplift. But, as Bauman shows, the theater had already opened the door to a new dynamic of both intra- and inter-racial theater-going and showed the ways a success, like the Pekin, had a positive economic and social impact on the surrounding community.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Series: The New Black Studies Series

Title Page, Copyright Page

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List of Figures

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List of Musical Examples

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pp. xi-xii

I first encountered the Pekin Theater at the Newberry Library in Chicago, where through the generosity of the National Endowment for the Humanities I was conducting research on cultural formation in early twentieth-century America. Buried in bundles of program books from Chicago theaters, the...

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pp. xiii-xxiv

Histories of understudied corners of the past often begin with lamentations over the scholarly injustice of it all. But what appears to the offended mind as negligence and oversight can just as readily, and more productively, be construed as an opportunity, as an invitation to think in fresh ways about...

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Prologue. 1903: Chicago's Black Gambling World

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pp. 1-17

On Friday, June 12, 1903, a twenty-eight-year-old cashier and his employer stepped from the offices of Edward Rueb & Co., commissioners, on West Randolph Street in Chicago. Ernest Naoroji, a native of Ceylon, had worked for almost two years at Rueb’s firm. Recently, an audit of his accounts had...

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1. The Temple of Music

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pp. 18-40

Paul Laurence Dunbar, like many other Americans, had gotten his first glimpse of Chicago in 1893 when he attended the World Columbian Exposition. An obscure young poet fresh out of high school, Dunbar brought with him from Dayton, Ohio, copies of his first book of poems, Oak and Ivy. He...

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2. The New Pekin

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pp. 41-66

Toward the end of January 1906 Elwood Knox, the editor of the Indianapolis Freeman, wrote to Robert Motts to seek his endorsement for a national Actors and Actresses Club he was thinking of forming. Motts replied that at the moment he was hesitant to comply, “for my thoughts are so full of matters...

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3. Tacking to the Wind

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pp. 67-91

In its initial version Captain Rufus ran at the Pekin for three weeks; a “second edition” played for three more weeks in Chicago and one in New York, after which the show returned in yet a third version for a final three-week run at the Pekin. Its spectacular success endorsed what Sylvester Russell...

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4. Holding the Stroll

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pp. 92-113

As he had done a year earlier, when the curtain had rung down on the final performance of The Husband Motts dismissed his stock company. But this time the return to vaudeville was to be more than just a summer respite. “No more stock companies for me,” he reportedly said as he contemplated the...

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5. Mott's Last Years

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pp. 114-137

Although Will Foster had declared the Pekin’s “one of the worst locations on the ‘Stroll’” in a moment of pique, his observation was not without substance. By 1910 most of the “traffic and business” along State Street was right where he said it was, between Thirty-first and Thirty-fifth Streets, as a representative...

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6. From Pillar to Post

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pp. 138-150

On the day Robert Motts died, several sheriff ’s officers and a black attorney entered his house at 4110 Calumet Avenue. They were intercepted by the undertaker, Daniel M. Jackson, a long-time friend of both Motts and his half-sister, Lucy Lindsay, who lived there as her brother’s housekeeper and...

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Epilogue: Diaspora

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pp. 151-160

Fred Motts died in June 1915 and was buried next to his brother and parents in Washington, Iowa. Anna Elizabeth Motts Jackson, the little girl snatched from slavery by her father, died at her home in Chicago the following January. Fred’s son Ralph succumbed to pneumonia in Chicago three years later and...

Appendix A: Repertoire of the Pekin Theater

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pp. 161-166

Appendix B: Musical Items Performed at the Pekin Theater, Chicago, 1906–1911

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pp. 167-184


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pp. 185-210


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pp. 211-224


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pp. 225-232

About the Author, Series Page, Production Notes

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E-ISBN-13: 9780252096242
E-ISBN-10: 025209624X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252038365

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: The New Black Studies Series