Metropolitan Theater


4644 South Martin Luther King Drive
Built 1916, demolished 1997
Architect: Henry L. Newhouse

The Metropolitan Theater at 4644 South Parkway (now Martin Luther King Drive) opened in January 1917 as part of the fledgling Ascher Brothers movie theater circuit. With a seating capacity of over 1400 and a state-of-the-art cooling system, the theater was also one of the south side’s largest and best-equipped theaters during its early years. The Metropolitan became an important jazz venue during the 1920s, but lost popularity during the 1930s as patrons took their business elsewhere.

Construction of the Metropolitan began in 1916 and the theater opened for business on 20 January 1917. Like most of the city’s movie theaters, the Metropolitan drew the majority of its patrons from the immediate neighborhood. At the time of the theater’s opening, the neighborhood around 47th Street and South Parkway was predominantly Irish and German Jewish. Over time, however, this changed. During World War I and the early 1920s, thousands of African Americans migrated to Chicago from the South. Initially, most of the new arrivals lived in the areas near 35th and State Streets. But as their numbers increased, they sought housing elsewhere. As a result, many once predominantly white neighborhoods on the South Side, including those that surrounded the Metropolitan, became predominantly African-American.

Changes in the racial composition of the South Side’s neighborhoods brought about changes in the operation and clientele of its vaudeville and movie theaters. Some theater owners, rather than adjust to the changes, closed or sold their theaters. The owners of the Metropolitan, however, adapted to the area’s shifting demographics.

At first, there were significant tensions between African-American patrons and the Metropolitan’s all-white staff. But discriminatory customer service on the part of ushers and other theater employees did not go unchallenged. In 1923, at least one black patron filed a discrimination complaint against the theater with the Chicago chapter of the NAACP. When the chapter inquired into the matter, A.L. Mayer, treasurer of the Ascher Brothers circuit, responded that it was against company policy for employees to discriminate against patrons on the basis of race. “Our explicit instructions to managers and all minor employees,” Mayer wrote, “are to treat all well behaved patrons alike, regardless of race, creed, or color.” Nonetheless, he acknowledged that employees sometimes deviated from company policy in their treatment of non-white patrons. “Naturally,” he wrote, “in carrying out their duties a considerable amount of initiative must be delegated to managers, doormen and ushers and it sometimes happens that patrons feel aggrieved.” The firm promised to cooperate with the NAACP to resolve incidents of discrimination as they arose.

Concerned about losing business, the Metropolitan’s owners increasingly reached out to the area’s growing black population. Handling the day-to-day management of the theater during these years was Jack Haag, one-time manager of the Loop’s Band Box Theater. Haag was known as one of the city’s more innovative theater managers. In 1926, Haag hired a successful African-American apartment building manager, Cary B. Lewis, as his new assistant manager. It marked the first time in Chicago history that an African American had been employed in a managerial capacity at a white-owned movie theater. Lewis’ hiring drew praise from Robert Abbott, publisher of the Chicago Defender, who urged African Americans to patronize the Metropolitan as a show of appreciation for its fair-minded hiring policies.

Soon after Lewis became assistant manager of the Metropolitan, Ascher Brothers hired black orchestra leader Sammy Stewart, one of the biggest names in Chicago jazz during the mid-1920s, to perform at the theater. Stewart’s appearances drew thousands of African-American patrons to the Metropolitan and led to the booking of many more black entertainers during the late 1920s. Among these were Erskine Tate, Fats Waller, Clarence Jones, and their orchestras. Such performers helped make the Metropolitan one of black Chicago’s most popular motion picture theaters.

Metropolitan Theater, ca. 1973

Metropolitan Theater, ca. 1973

The Metropolitan’s heyday was a short one, however. By 1930, the combined effects of the Great Depression and the opening of the enormous Regal Theater and legendary Savoy Ballroom less than a block away drained customers away from the theater. As revenues declined, the theater’s owners became less willing to shell out large sums of money to hire top-flight jazz orchestras or to show first-run movies. Although the Metropolitan remained open, its offerings increasingly paled in comparison to those of the Regal and the Savoy.

The theater, known simply as the “Met” during its later years, closed for business in 1979. During the mid-1990s, neighborhood activists and preservationists organized to fight demolition of the structure, which at one point served as a meeting hall for Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH organization. Some hoped it could be revived as an African-American community arts center. In December 1997, however, the city ordered the demolition of the theater.


Internet Resources
Photograph: Metropolitan Theater, 1946 [Theatre Historical Society of America]
Photograph: Metropolitan Theater, 1946 [Theatre Historical Society of America]
Photograph: Metropolitan Theater, 1946 [Theatre Historical Society of America]


Sources: Chicago Defender, 15 Sep. 1923, 2; 20 Feb. 1926, pt. 1, pg. 5; 1 May 1926, pt. 1, pg. 6; 6 Oct. 1928, pt. 1, pg. 10; Chicago Tribune, 10 Dec. 1997, sec. 2, pgs. 1 and 8; Billboard, 28 Aug. 1926, 8.

Image source: “Metropolitan Theater,” undated, Historic Architectural/Archeological Resources Geographic Information System, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency [http://gis.hpa.state.il.us/hargis/Reports/photos/Cook/53337.jpg] (7 November 2003).

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