Pekin Theatre

Pekin Theatre ticket office and entrance, 1921 (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

In segregated Springfield, the Pekin Theatre was the only movie house that not only catered specifically to African-Americans, but was managed by African-Americans as well.

The Pekin was at 811-15 E. Washington St. The block, the site of both Black- and white-owned businesses, was the heart of Springfield’s African-American shopping and entertainment district.

The Pekin opened on Dec. 1, 1914. Opening announcements published in the Illinois State Journal and Illinois State Register made no suggestion that the theater wanted to appeal mainly to African-Ameicans. But, in what may have been understood as code, the Journal announcement emphasized that “the management will … guarantee the best of treatment, and will appreciate the patronage of one and all.”

“The new theatre is built in strict accordance with the city ordinances,” the story added. “The interior is beautiful and up-to-date in every respect. Private boxes are provided for those who like. … Five hundred comfortable seats in all is the seating capacity.”

At any rate, the Pekin quickly began selling tickets mainly, if not exclusively, to African-Americans. In April 1915, a city council election ticket headed by Willis Spaulding and Charles Baumann offered free movies to people who sat through rallies at several local theaters, among them the Pekin. The Illinois State Register reported the day after the rally there:

Hundreds of colored voters, all staunch supporters of Spaulding, Clapp, Vancil and Baumann, packed the Pekin theatre at Eighth and Washington streets last night to hear these candidates speak. Enthusiasm at its highest and on several occasions the speakers were forced to pause until the applause subsided.

The theater’s first manager was identified only as “L. Silvers,” described as an experienced theater operator from Chicago. He apparently was white. At some point early on, however, James S. Mason (1871-1943) took over the Pekin. Mason, who was African-American, had previously been a captain in the Springfield Fire Department and a city police detective.

The Pekin often showed films with white casts, simply because they were mainly what was available. “Outside the Law” in 1921 starred Priscilla Dean and Lon Chaney, for instance. But the Pekin’s tiny newspaper advertisement for “Outside the Law” included the line “The Pekin: Springfield’s Colored Playhouse.”

Advertisement, December 1921 (SJ-R)

The Pekin, however, also offered Black-oriented movies that other Springfield houses probably wouldn’t have considered, such as Oscar Micheaux’s 1920 classic, “Within Our Gates.”

In addition to showing films, the Pekin served as an auditorium and meeting hall for such events as wrestling matches and fundraisers.

In February 1925, when the Springfield Ku Klux Klan lodge apparently tried to form an African-American chapter (the 1920s’ Klan, at least in central Illinois, focused its agitation mainly against immigrants and Catholics, not Blacks), African-American leaders held a rally to oppose the idea at the Pekin. The mass meeting concluded with a resolution that said:

We, the colored people, do hereby condemn in most precise and direct terms to movement to get colored people into the Ku Klux Klan and we also condemn as unwise and unpatriotic any action on the part of the colored people to foster, encourage or in any way condone the movement to enlist persons of color into the Ku Klux Klan.

Later in the 1920s, the Pekin became part of the entertainment empire of Amos Duncan (1890-1945). Duncan, like Mason a former law enforcement officer, was a leading Black politician and entrepreneur. He also owned several bars and founded Dreamland Park, an amusement park on Cornell Avenue that catered to African-Americans.

It’s not clear when the Pekin stopped showing movies. A white sports figure, Thomas “Dido” DiCenso, leased and remodeled the Pekin as the home of an amateur boxing club he organized in 1935, but that seems to have lasted only a few months.

From 1936 to 1940, the Pekin was used periodically for dances, banquets and amateur shows, usually sponsored by African-American Republicans or the American Legion’s Otis B. Duncan Post 809. The theater apparently closed in 1940 or ’41.

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