3145 South State Street
Opened in 1919, the Vendome Theater was located at 3145 South State Street in the heart of Chicago’s so-called “Black Belt.”
The theater was owned and operated by O.C. Hammond and his sons, Frank and Johnny, as part of their fledgling circuit of south side movie theaters. In addition to the Vendome, Hammond owned the Elba, Fountain, Phoenix, and Pickford Theaters, the last of which he acquired in November 1918. All four theaters catered to black Chicagoans who lived in the surrounding neighborhoods, but were denied equal treatment–and sometimes admission–to predominantly white movie theaters in the area. In December 1917, Hammond announced plans to construct a large, 1300-seat, $250,000 movie theater on the site of the South Side Turner Hall, an old German-American cultural center that had burned several years earlier and had not been rebuilt.
Prominent black Chicagoans responded to the annoucement with enthusiasm. The Defender promised its readers, possibly at the urging of Hammond himself, that the new movie theater would be one of the city’s best. To make the case, the newspaper carefully outlined the many amenities that would distinguish it from the neighborhood’s older movie theaters. “It will have,” the newspaper reported, “a mezzanine floor, containing boxes only; a smoking room for gentlemen and a beautifully equipped ladies’ retiring room. It is intended to have a ten-piece orchestra in addition to a $10,000 pipe organ, and all employees will be liveried, including a corps of competent usherettes. The attractions will be nothing but the finest productions, and those of the greater magnitude will be booked for runs lasting as long as four days.” The Defender commended Hammond’s past record of non-discriminatory treatment of black patrons at his theaters and praised his committment to fair hiring policies when selecting employees for the new theater. At the Vendome, the newspaper affirmed, “all employees will be folks of Color,” and for that reason “the new theater will mean much to the people of the district.”
After the theater opened in early 1919, it quickly became one of black Chicago’s most popular movie theaters, both for its first-run films and its top-notch live jazz performances. The Vendome featured not only the most acclaimed Hollywood movies, but also so-called “race films,” movies made by black directors that addressed black concerns and starred primarily black actors. During the 1920s and 1930s, race films filled the hole left by Hollywood’s preference for non-controversial films that erased black faces and black perspectives from the silver screen. In January 1920, after a lengthy battle with Chicago’s board of censors over rape and lynching scenes, the Vendome premiered a cut version of Oscar Micheaux’s “Within Our Gates,” the black director’s first major release. During the same period, the Vendome, like other south side movie theaters, also showed films about the accomplishments and victorious homecoming of African-American soliders from the First World War. Such movies helped establish the Vendome as the city’s leading black movie theater during the 1920s.
Top-notch jazz performances also helped endear the Vendome to large numbers of black Chicagoans. Like all large movie theaters during the silent era, the Vendome employed a house orchestra to play accompaniment to the movies and entertain the audience during intermissions. Better bands became an act—and an attraction—in their own right, at times overshadowing the movies and receiving top billing on the marquee. The Vendome Orchestra started out as a five-man quintet and gradually expanded to become a ten-plus-member orchestra. Leading the Vendome Orchestra was the youthful violinist, Erskine Tate, whom the Hammonds had brought over from the Phoenix Theater. Like the big bands that dominated the music scene in the 1930s, Tate’s orchestra was versatile, capable of playing everything from formal classical works to red hot jazz numbers. The popularity of the Vendome Orchestra soared in December 1925 when the master coronetist, Louis Armstrong, came aboard after a stint at the Dreamland Cafe. When Armstrong played a solo, the Vendome audiences cheered wildly. In 1926, Armstrong left to work the Sunset Cafe, one of the city’s most notorious black and tans. Other jazz artists who performed at the Vendome during the 1920s included pianist Earl Hines, drummer Jimmy Bertrand, cornetist Freddie Keppard, and pianist Lil Hardin-Armstrong.
In 1927, bandleader and Chicago Defender columnist Dave Peyton praised Tate’s orchestra for its accomplishments. “A pride of the Race is the Vendome Theater orchestra, under the direction of Erskine Tate,” he wrote. “This organization stands alone nationally as the paramount picture house orchestra. The boys that compose this unit are all first-rate musicians. Fifteen in all, they have molded themselves into a power unit in maintaining a steady patronage at Chicago’s Vendome Theater.”
The Vendome’s fortunes appear to have declined rapidly during the late 1920s and early 1930s. In March 1928, Tate and his orchestra ended their nine-year engagement at the Vendome and moved over to the Metropolitan Theater. Combined with increased competition from the opening of new movie theaters, such as the Regal Theater, that catered to African Americans, the departure of Tate no doubt cut deeply into the Vendome’s revenues. In many respects, the Regal was patterned on the Vendome, particularly in the latter’s presentation of live jazz in a refined theater setting that appealed to upwardly mobile, status-conscious black Chicagoans. The Vendome was demolished in 1949.
Photograph: Vendome Theater, façade, ca. 1948 [Charles W. Cushman Photograph Collection, Indiana University]
Sources: Chicago Defender, 22 December 1917, 8; 9 November 1918, 6; 12 March 1927, pt. 1, pg. 8; 19 March 1927, pt. 1, pg. 8; 10 March 1928, pt. 1, pg. 8; 24 March 1928, pt. 1, pg. 11; Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps.