Located on 135th Street just off Lenox Avenue in New York City, the Lincoln Theatre was Harlem's premier center of popular entertainment from the turn of the century until the Great Depression. Its predecessor was the Nickelette, a storefront nickelodeon presenting fifteen-minute segments of live entertainment on a makeshift stage. One early performer, around 1903, was Baby Florence, the child singer and dancer who grew up to be Florence Mills, the Broadway and London star. The Nickelette was purchased in 1909 by Maria C. Downs, who doubled the seating to three hundred and named the theater after Abraham Lincoln. Harlem was becoming increasingly black, but most theaters segregated or refused admission to African Americans. Downs turned the Lincoln into a headquarters for black shows and audiences, a policy so successful that she constructed the building with a seating capacity of 850 in 1915.
Although the theater placed some emphasis on serious drama—with the Anita Bush Stock Company, for example, before it moved to the rival Lafayette—the Lincoln during the 1910s and 1920s became the focal point for down-home, even raucous, vernacular entertainment that particularly appealed to recent working-class immigrants from the South. As the New York showcase of the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA), it drew all the big names of black vaudeville: Bessie Smith, Bert Williams, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters, and Butterbeans and Susie. The Lincoln was the only place in New York where Ma Rainey ever sang. Mamie Smith was appearing there in Perry Bradford's Maid of Harlem when she made the first commercial recording of vocal blues by a black singer.
Because it housed a live orchestra, the Lincoln also became a venue for jazz musicians. Don Redman performed there in 1923 with Billy Paige's Broadway Syncopators. Lucille Hegamin and her Sunny Land Cotton Pickers featured a young Russell Procope on clarinet in 1926, the same year Fletcher Henderson with his Roseland Orchestra played there. Perhaps the name most closely identified with the Lincoln was the composer and stride pianist Thomas "Fats" Waller, who imitated the theater's piano and organ player while still a child and was hired for twenty-three dollars a week in 1919 to replace her; he was then fifteen years old. When he failed to find financial backing to produce his opera Treemonisha, Scott Joplin paid for a single performance at the Lincoln. Unable to afford an orchestra, he provided the only accompaniment himself on the piano.
A steady stream of white show-business writers and composers, including George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, joined the black audiences at the Lincoln, not only to be entertained but to find new ideas and new tunes. More than one melody, dance step, or comedy routine that originated with a black vaudeville act wound up in a white Broadway musical. The Lincoln did not survive the economic disaster of the Great Depression and the changing tastes of the Harlem community, where more sophisticated people began to refer to it as "the Temple of Ignorance." Downs sold the theater in 1929 to Frank Shiffman, who turned it into a movie house. Later, a renovated Lincoln Theatre housed the Metropolitan AME Church.
Newman, Richard. "The Lincoln Theatre." American Visions 6, no. 4 (August 1991): 29–32.
richard newman (1996)