The Rise and Fall of Chicago's First Black-Owned Theater

Pekin Theater in Chicago

In 1904, political operator and gambling boss Robert T. Motts opened the Pekin Theater in Chicago. Dubbed the "Temple of Music," the Pekin became one of the country's most prestigious African American cultural institutions, renowned for its all-black stock company and school for actors, an orchestra able to play ragtime and opera with equal brilliance, and a repertoire of original musical comedies.
In his book, The Pekin: The Rise and Fall of Chicago's First Black-Owned Theater, historian Thomas Bauman reveals how Motts used his entrepreneurial acumen to create a successful Black-owned enterprise.

For example, Motts had a philosophy of hiring only African American staff, and heavily embraced multi-racial upper class audiences. In addition, his theater also served as a community center, social club, and fundraising instrument.

Sadly, the Pekin's prestige and profitability faltered after Motts' death in 1911 as his heirs lacked his savvy, and African American elites turned away from pure entertainment in favor of spiritual uplift.

But, the theater had already opened the door to a new dynamic of both intra- and inter-racial theater-going and showed the ways a success, like the Pekin, had a positive economic and social impact on the surrounding community.