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5. Motts’s Last Years 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 list of new theaters and enterprises associated with them (cafés, hotels, musical establishments) indicates: Number Establishment Owner Date 3132 Lincoln Theater Malvy 1908 3230 Dunbar Theater Dr. W. A. Richardson 1908 3004 Hotel Brunswick George W. Holt 1909 3140 Gale Piano Co. Frank L. Gale 1909 3150 music studio A. C. Elgar 1910 3025 Wm. Foster Music Co. William Foster 1910 3159 music arranging Will Dorsey 1910 3212 St. Paul Inn Phil E. Reed 1911 Raleigh W. Thompson 3334 Mecca Buffet Joe Jordan 1912 Tom Clark 3110 New Grand Theater Grand Amusement Co. 1912 Though not many blocks away, these businesses stood miles apart from the seedy dives proliferating in the vice district along State Street to the north of the Pekin. George W. Holt, a businessman from St. Louis, spent $35,000 to buy and fit out the Hotel Brunswick, three blocks south of the Pekin, in 1909: Motts’s Last Years 115 The interior finish of the first floor, which contains the Buffet, pool and billiard parlor, is without the least question a hundred times finer than any establishment of its kind conducted by an Afro-American in any section of the country—in fact it is a dream, and no one can give a correct description of the magnificence of the expensive furnishings.1 Theatrical circles on the Stroll in late 1910 awaited with keen anticipation completion of the New Grand Theater, almost certain to challenge the supremacy of the Pekin. Rather than renovating an existing structure, the company of white owners behind the project had decided to erect an entirely new building four blocks south of the Pekin, one that would offer its African American patrons all the fittings and comforts of a first-class vaudeville house—brass rails, plush curtained boxes, morocco leather seats throughout, state-of-the-art climate control, unobstructed views of an ample stage from anywhere in the house, and wide, richly carpeted aisles. On the same block the Frank L. Gale Piano Company, which opened its doors on May 1, 1909, had by the end of its first year established itself as the center of musical activity and enterprise on the Stroll. “Many of the wise ones at the time,” recalled the Broad Ax four years later, “freely predicted that he would not last in that line of business more than three to six months, that no Colored man, even if he did entertain the foolish idea that he was smart, was sharp enough in any way to make a success in the piano or music business.”2 Yet Gale managed to sell two to three pianos a week during his first year. In early 1910 he moved to new quarters across the street, took on a partner, and rented out space in the back of his store to Will Dorsey’s music-arranging studio. By 1913 his company was able to file papers of incorporation and issued stock to the tune of $50,000. Shipp’s Company With all of this activity to the south of the Pekin, Motts was depending on his new stock company to ensure that his theater’s position at the top of the Stroll was not just a matter of geography but also one of prestige, popularity, and profitability. The lull in East Coast shows brought on in part by the mental breakdowns of George Walker and Bob Cole had freed up a considerable pool of talent, much of which Corker and Shipp were able to draw to the Pekin, and to which they added as the theater’s new policy of short musical comedies and first-class vaudeville acts caught on. Motts was still at the door smiling over each succeeding full house, but as he had done with Will H. Smith earlier he began to transfer more and more practical responsibility to Corker, whom he promoted soon after the formation of the stock company 116 chapter 5 to associate manager. For some time Motts’s health had been deteriorating. His vacations at spas had grown more frequent, and in early 1911 he even consulted a nature healer about his condition.3 Over...


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