- The Regal Theater and Black Culture
Clovis Semmes's impeccably researched history of the Regal Theater, a Chicago Bronzeville (or "Black Belt") institution for forty years (1928–68), provides the scholar of early twentieth-century performances a goldmine of information about the inner workings of the business and adds a new chapter to the history of African American theatre. Semmes's goal is to write not only a history of the Regal, but also of the role such a performance space played in the cultural life of blacks in Chicago. Built in 1928 in the heart of the Black Belt as part of a larger commercial center, the Regal produced its own stage shows over the years, as well as hosting touring vaudeville and performance groups, musicians, and traveling variety shows. Famous African American performers and bandleaders including Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Ethel Waters, and Paul Robeson, as well as many lesser-known circuit musicians, dance troupes, and performance acts graced the stage of the Regal, the only "deluxe theater or motion picture palace ever built expressly for a Black American community" (15). While at times his chronological account feels like a laundry list of performances and performers, of facts and figures, it is a list worth reciting—especially for many of the African American artists who tend to disappear from public knowledge. Through the lens of the Regal, its owners and producers, its performers and audiences, Semmes examines the effects of urbanization and the ever-changing economic landscape of black society.
The book is chaptered chronologically, with its focus split between detailing the changes in owners [End Page 353] and producers and describing the performances held at the Regal. While today Harlem's Apollo Theatre is better known, the Regal was built six years before the Apollo, could seat twice as many patrons, and became the stop for performers and musicians before they hit New York. Initially, the Regal employed its own talent, including a big jazz band and dancers, but in short time its management phased out the in-house performers in favor of booking acts already on tour, either those on the Theatre Owners Booking Association circuit (or TOBA, the vaudeville booking association for black performers) or African American musicians who were playing at the other theatres in town that catered to white audiences. Not until World War II did the self-produced stage shows return in earnest. One assumes this cessation of in-house productions was a decision made by the white owners, who focused solely on profit rather than the artistic considerations of the Regal's performers or the black audience's interest in seeing shows created exclusively for them; however, Semmes sticks to facts instead of theorizing larger cultural considerations.
The book includes personal histories from many of the Regal's employees. From projectionists to candy girls, their stories highlight the desire for connections to the community the Regal serviced. Workers recall the opulence of the lobby areas, the professionalism of the staff, and the theatre's ability to cater to the needs of its patrons. Semmes also notes the importance of the connection between the local black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, and the Regal, as the newspaper became its main promoter, either through editorials and feature articles or weekly advertising.
In 1963, S. B. Fuller bought the Regal and became its first African American owner—a testament to the black community that could foster such successful business owners, not only in its own neighborhood but across the city of Chicago. Yet whether it was Fuller's own mismanagement of the Regal or the reality that a 3,000-seat venue for live performance could not be sustained while other elements of black life took precedence (such as the growing civil rights movement in the heart of Chicago), the Regal closed in 1968, even after Fuller brought back the once-popular stage shows. In 1973, like many old theatres of its time, the Regal and its large expanse of real estate became a parking lot.