In the Spring of 1919, “Marian Dawley and a few other girls of color…went to the movie theater at 59th and Market Streets.” They lined up to buy tickets and were told “all tickets for colored people have been sold.”
They left “disgusted,” according to the Philadelphia Tribune.
Other than The Standard Theatre on the 1100 block of South Street, audiences of color had few options for entertainment. “The white theatres are and have been for some time drawing the color line,” pointed out the Tribune. “We have but one theatre owned and controlled by our race in this city, and when it is full, which is at every performance, there is practically no place for our people to go.”
But change was coming, readers learned. “In a few months the new Dunbar theatre will be completed at the corner of Broad and Lombard Streets.” This theatre, The Dunbar, will be “owned and controlled by citizens of color” to serve the city’s African American theatregoers, which, as a result of the Great Migration, was estimated at 50,000.
“The Quality Amusement Company, of which Mr. E. C. Brown, of the Brown and Stevens, Bankers is the head” soon had “ten Negro Theatres…in cities including Savannah, Richmond, Washington (Howard) New York (Lafayette) and Chicago.” Philadelphia’s promised to be “the finest theatre in the world owned, managed and controlled by colored people.”
“It was a grand spectacle December 29,  to see the thousands of happy souls, men and women, boys and girls, as they wended through the streets of Philadelphia and filled every available space in the new Dunbar Theatre… The colored citizens of Philadelphia have something really their own,” something “that they will be and are proud of and can boast about” something “wonderful, marvelous, almost inconceivable, yet so true.”
John T. Gibson, owner of the Standard Theatre responded by cutting his ticket prices. Gibson, according to A History of African American Theatre knew that the Dunbar’s parent company “had overextended itself by building the $500,000 Douglass Theatre in Baltimore, as well as the Renaissance Theatre in Harlem.” And in September 1921, just a few months after the “Shuffle Along” premiered at the Dunbar, Gibson bought the theater.
As the stage of choice, “Gibson’s New Dunbar Theatre” hosted the full array of African American talent: Will Marion Cook’s Internation Orchestra and Entertainers in the Quintessence of Jazz; the Ethiopian Art Theater’s version of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” fresh from its run on Broadway; The Lafayette Players productions of “The Shoplifters” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame;” the Manhattan Players’ “Cat and the Canary; “Sunshine Sammy;” “Runnin’ Wild;” “Swanee River Home;” “Struttin’ Time;” “Come Along Mandy;” Mamie Smith; and “The Chocolate Dandies,” featuring Josephine Baker’s first Philadelphia appearance.
The Great Depression forced the sale of Gibson’s Dunbar to new (white) owners, who added a giant marquee, dubbed it The Lincoln and continued to bring in the talent including Duke Ellington and his Orchestra and Cab Callaway, “the Heidi Ho King and his original Cotton Club Orchestra,” who brought “Mini the Moocher” back to life once more. The Lincoln stage saw “Fats” Waller, Louis Armstrong, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Earl Hines, Ethel Waters, as well as other headliners.
From the beginning, the theater played a critical role in addition to serving as the city’s most desirable stage for African American performers. The Lincoln was often dedicated to race relations, human rights and political protest.
In 1920, the Bramhall Players, an interracial troupe, presented Butler Davenport ‘s “Justice,” described as a “race drama.” Where “Uncle Tom’s Cabin “went far to free the Negro’s body from bondage” “Justice,” claimed one review, “will go far to liberate the white man’s mind from prejudice.”
Three years later, more than 3,500 packed a mass meeting in the theater to protest “The Shame of America” and support passage of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill.
And in December 1938, The Lincoln hosted a public meeting denouncing “Nazi Germany’s persecutions of racial and religious minorities” warning that “such actions are sympathetically received in some quarters in this country.” About 500 attended the event, sponsored by the United Committee Against Racial and Religious Persecutions. It began with a march up South Street, from 5th to 15th and then to The Lincoln, where “an effigy of Adolf Hitler, replete in brown shirt swastika and mustache…in front of the theatre…was publicly burned.”
Such was Broad and Lombard’s well-earned niche, once-upon-a-time.
[Sources include: “All Seats For Colored People Are Sold Out,” Philadelphia Tribune, March 8, 1919; Philadelphia to Soon Have a New Colored Play House, Philadelphia Tribune, November 8, 1919; “The Dunbar Theatre has Swung Open its Doors to the Public,” Philadelphia Tribune, January 3, 1920; “Phila. Has “Something New Under the Sun,” by Anny Boddy, Philadelphia Tribune, January 3, 1920; The Crisis, 1920, vols. 21-22, Advertisement for “Justice;” “Anti-Lynching Bill Support Asked,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 3, 1923; “Hitler’s Effigy Burned by Crowd,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 6. 1938; and Advertisements for The Dunbar and The Lincoln, 1920-1936 in The Philadelphia Inquirer. ]