Dunbar Theater

1287-89 Mt. Vernon Avenue,
Columbus, OH 43203

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The Dunbar Theater was opened on April 27, 1908. The Dunbar Theater was the first African American theater to exhibit motion pictures in Columbus, Ohio. In what is now called the King-Lincoln Bronzeville District, at least five movie theaters were built over a twenty-year period, all within easy walking distance of each other. The Dunbar Theater was located at the intersection of Mt. Vernon Avenue and Champion Avenue. The Vernon Theater, later renamed the Cameo Theater, was located on Mt. Vernon Avenue near 20th Street. This theater, initially, banned blacks from entering the building to see a movie. Later, the Vanguard League began a protest campaign that led to the integration of the Cameo Theater. The black lodge organization called the Knights of Pythias built the Pythian Theater (now named the King Arts Center) and is located on Mt. Vernon Avenue between Monroe Avenue and Garfield Avenue. The originally African American built and owned Ogden Theater (later renamed the Lincoln Theater) and the Empress Theater were located opposite each other on Long Street near Hamilton Park.

The 2-story Dunbar Theater building lasted almost sixty years; however, the recorded history of the structure is lost after its adaptive reuse as a stained-glass studio and showroom. The $18,000 theater building was built by Samuel Clark, a “colored” person, in the vernacular of the times. The theater was intended primarily for African Americans, or “Negroes,” in the vernacular of the times. However, the newspaper announcing the erection of the theater stated “when the building is let to white people the management will make the right exclusive and no colored people will be permitted to enter.” The article described the stage as “36 feet deep and 40 feet wide, and the auditorium has a seating capacity of 700.” The first floor was designed for a large dance hall. Thomas Howard was named manager of the theater. Initially, the performers were amateurs, but eventually, the management expected to join a “colored vaudeville circuit” …to acquire “professional vaudeville for colored people.”

The nonprofessional Girls' Guild presented a Shakespearean play, in June of 1908. On October 22, 1908, the Dunbar Theater was formally opened with vaudeville acts on stage. A week later a “Colored” Republican meeting was held on the night of October 29th.

Lurman Page was mentioned as the manager of the Dunbar Theater in 1910.

Monday evening, June 12, 1911, the Dunbar Theater opened with motion pictures. However, after the first show, the Fire Chief ordered the theater closed because of a local code prohibiting the operation of moving picture machines on the second floor of a building. The news article reported that the theater was opened by Powell & Smith.

The Dunbar Theater owner, Samuel Clark contracted for a two-story addition to the building, in 1912. The theater was reported in 1913 to be managed by Samuel L. Greene, with as many as nine employees. A Columbus Dispatch article on February 11, 1914, stated that the Dunbar Theater “was the only moving picture theater in the city operated by colored people.” Besides showing films (of course, films were silent then) the Dunbar Theater continued with vaudeville and installed an orchestra.

In 1915, Bert Woodson was mentioned as the operator of the Dunbar Theater. Sometime after 1916, it appears that the Dunbar Theater was closed until July 1919. Reopening, the building featured dancing on the mezzanine floor and films exhibited in the theater.

The “Roaring Twenties” marked the last decade that films were exhibited in the Dunbar Theater. Also, the impact of the Harlem Renaissance was felt during the meetings featuring speakers from the New York City headquarters of the Marcus Garvey-led Universal Negro Improvement Association. In 1925, Nimrod Allen, the head of the Columbus Urban League presented a speech that he called “The Progress of Interracial Relations in Columbus.” He referred to the Dunbar Theater as white-owned; “the building in which this theater is operated is owned by a Negro. The few white theaters, where Negroes were admitted, segregate them.”

In 1929, the Dunbar Theater was banned from film exhibition when the building was declared a fire trap. The early years of the 1930’s, saw the Dunbar Theater used as a dance hall for “colored people.” Eventually, the building became vacant and a few fires occurred. Plans were made to remodel the building into a dance hall. A master-stained glass artist named Ludwig von Gerichten, in 1933, adapted the reuse of the Dunbar Theater into a stained-glass chapel-studio-showroom. What happened to von Gerichten’s venture is unknown, but the site surrounding the Dunbar Theater, if not the theater itself, was developed, in 1940, into Poindexter Village, one of the nation’s first public housing projects, and the first public housing units in Columbus. It was also occupied entirely by African Americans in the then-segregated East Side of Columbus.

Contributed by Dow B. Ellis, Jr.
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