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2. The New Pekin 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 of immediate concern that I can not if I would think logically of anything else.” He went on to explain: You may not have heard about it but I have recently sustained a thousand dollars damage by fire. A Greek restaurant, close to my place caught fire about three o’clock on the morning of January 10, and the flames, with great maliciousness, leaped out of bounds and attacked the roof of the Pekin auditorium; the fire department did the rest, put me out of business until I can rebuild. It also threw fifty people unexpectedly out of employment. But we expect to get under way again about the first of March. I shall open with a new production in a well, and regularly appointed theatre. I expect to spend $10,000 to the end that the New Pekin shall be a playhouse worthy of the name and a credit to the Negro race.1 This rare public statement from Motts bespeaks both his positive attitude in the face of adversity and his deep-seated loyalty to and sense of responsibility for his employees. At the time of the fire the Pekin Temple of Music had already established itself as “a credit to the Negro race.” Motts saw rebuilding not just as necessary to “get under way again” but also as an opportunity to aim for something even higher. When next the readers of the Freeman heard of his plans, it was in the form of an advertisement (Figure 3).2 No more were comparisons of the Pekin to be with beer gardens, cabarets, or cafés chantants, but rather with the best legitimate theaters that Chicago had to offer. The “well, and regularly appointed theatre” Motts had promised Figure 3. Advertisement for opening of New Pekin and for performers The New Pekin 43 in his letter to Knox was now taking shape as a bijou theater adorned and equipped to satisfy the demands of the most fastidious patron and also to provide for his performing artists in ways the old Pekin had not, with dressing rooms, an ample stage, an orchestra pit, and a wardrobe department. Born Again Absent from the advertisement is the name of Will H. Smith. Shortly after the fire Smith had gone over to the camp of a new rival—“Poney” Moore. Despite his pull as “King of the Tenderloin,” the preceding November Moore had seen his saloon license snatched away by the mayor and chief of police and his place closed down completely a month later. Now, in February 1906 he found himself among sixty guests at a banquet honoring Motts. Seeing a former member of his gambling fraternity basking in the admiration and gratitude of many of the high and the mighty of the race seems to have made an impression. Soon after that evening Moore acquired the property that Sam Snowden had been operating as a saloon, hotel, and gambling den on Thirty-first Street, with the aim of converting it into a vaudeville house.3 While the Pekin stood in limbo, Moore hired Smith and together they set to work fashioning a place more or less along the lines of the old Pekin. At the New Pekin, Motts himself took over Smith’s duties as general manager . By opening night on March 31 he had put together a substantially new executive team, including two of his nephews—Robert W. as superintendent of building and Thomas as treasurer. They were soon joined by their brothers Ralph and Leon in helping their uncle run the theater. Other important positions in the New Pekin included an electrician, property man, scenic artist, wardrobe mistress, advance agent, press agent, and stage mechanic. Especiallycriticaltomaintainingatoneofrefinementanddecorumwerethe positions of chief usher and lady attendants. A page printed at the beginning of theprogrambooksgiventopatrons(Figure4)containsnoticestoutingthenew theater’s amenities (reserved seating, a ladies’ dressing room, public telephone, message service, house physician, café, and the standards of comportment expected of both patrons and staff. The “absolutely fire proof curtain” used between acts and the red lights marking exits, now a part of the city building code, would have reassured a public still haunted by recollections of...


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