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Introduction 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 seemingly settled historical issues and practices. The little theater called the Pekin, which opened its doors on the South Side of Chicago in mid-1904, offers just such an invitation. As “the first and only colored theatre in America”1 it enjoyed in its day a level of prestige and success that was both spectacular and unprecedented. Yet after the death in 1911 of its founder, owner, and chief executive officer, Robert T. Motts, the theater slid quickly from its position of national prominence, first into notoriety, and then into obscurity. As with the fall of empires, the decline of a theatrical enterprise like the Pekin is much easier to account for than its rise. There was, to begin with, the southward drift of the black entertainment district, known as the Stroll, away from the theater’s station at Twenty-seventh and South State Streets. Then came the failures of stewardship by Motts’s heirs, who could not match his managerial acumen or perpetuate the close identification of the theater with its founder in the hearts and minds of its loyal patrons. Finally, social and economic shifts associated with the Great Migration favored other, cheaper forms of entertainment than those that a high-class “legitimate” house like the Pekin had to offer. xiv Introduction Where to Begin? But what accounts for the Pekin’s ascent to prominence in the first place? Motts came to his enterprise not as a man of the theater but as a saloonkeeper , quondam gambling lord, and practiced hand at state and local politics. Housed far from Chicago’s theater district in a refurbished building behind a busy saloon, the place seemed destined for a quiet career as a neighborhood resort serving the small black population scattered around the city’s South Side. Seen in this light, the Pekin Theater arose not from the world of the turnof -the-century American stage, black or white, but from the social world that had enriched its founder, given scope to his activities as a community leader, and put him in fraternal company with black entertainers and musicians in Chicago’s Black Belt. In his influential study Negro Politicians, Harold Gosnell gives the misleading impression that Motts continued his career as a “gambling king” after creating the Pekin.2 No evidence supports this. On the contrary, his whole-hearted commitment to his theater led to a decisive break with his gambling past and initiated his eventual assimilation into the ranks of the “respectables” in Chicago’s black community. Motts could not well have maintained his ties with the gambling fraternity and have earned the good will of the “aristocrats of color” on whom the success of the Pekin depended. With his new-won status in black society, Motts also sharply curtailed his involvement in party politics. The client-patron system to which black leaders had to submit at the time in order to exercise political power in Chicago had never really suited Motts’s decisive, independent, entrepreneurial personality. Later, the machine politics that supplanted the client-patron system enabled black leaders to operate as independent political players.3 But Motts did not live to see that day. Modeled at first along European lines as a cabaret, the Pekin underwent a major transformation in early 1906 from which the New Pekin emerged as a first-class bijou theater. With the creation of the Pekin Stock Company shortly thereafter, it also turned from evenings of vaudeville acts to full-length musical comedies. For three years the company and its comedies won ardent fans among the theater’s regular patrons, whom the black press took to calling “Pekinites.” But no matter who or what was on the playbill, its black patrons saw the core of the New Pekin’s identity as Ida Wells-Barnett described it in 1906—“a theater in which we could sit anywhere we chose without any restrictions.”4 A lone experiment in black theatrical entrepreneurship had preceded the Pekin. In New York City a retired ship’s steward named William Brown had Introduction xv opened his African Grove pleasure garden on the West Side in August 1821, mostly for his fellow black stewards and other members of...


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