“If you go to the corner of State and 27th now,” says Chicago historian Tim Samuelson, “you find a bunch of dirty parking lots. But if you went there in 1905 or 1906, you would find something very different: the Pekin Theatre.”
The Pekin was Chicago’s—and the country’s—very first theater owned and operated by African-Americans. As Samuelson describes it, it was an African-American version of a Broadway theater in the heart of Bronzeville and the anchor of a business and entertainment district called “the Stroll” that extended south along State to 39th Street. The Pekin’s shows had singers and dancers and comedians and, most importantly, bands that played ragtime.
The Pekin fell into a long decline in the 1910s, closed in the ’20s, and has now been mostly forgotten. But this Saturday night it will rise again, at least for a few hours, in a one-night performance called “An Evening at the Pekin Theatre,” presented by the Illinois Humanities Council and featuring MacArthur-certified ragtime genius Reginald Robinson.
Both Samuelson and Robinson have been fascinated with ragtime for as long as they can remember—unlike so many of us, they weren’t permanently put off the music by hearing “The Entertainer” blaring in an endless loop from the tinny speaker of an ice cream truck. When they finally met a few years ago, Robinson was researching musicians who’d performed in Chicago in the early 1900s and Samuelson was leading walking tours of the Stroll. It seemed natural for them to collaborate.
“When everyone thinks of Chicago,” says Samuelson, “they think of jazz and the blues. But in the first decade of the 20th century, it was a syncopated city. It was all ragtime.”
Though ragtime wasn’t invented in Chicago, it first became famous here, thanks in part to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. In 1904, Robert T. Motts, one of the gambling kings of Chicago, finally grew tired of the politics and raids and decided to cash in and turn his Bronzeville gambling hall into a cabaret and cultural center. Eventually the Pekin grew into a full-fledged theater, presenting some high culture—largely in the form of operas and poetry readings—but mainly musical revues that featured ragtime.
“Ragtime music was not just frozen in time,” says Robinson. “It was always developing. The Pekin was one of the places that allowed it to develop.” Many famous musicians passed through the Pekin, most notably Joe Jordan (who wrote the theater’s signature tune, “The Pekin Rag”) and his songwriting partner, Will Marion Cook. Together the team wrote “Lovie Joe,” which became a hit for Fanny Brice on Broadway.
Though everybody was welcome in the Pekin—a courtesy not extended by many white-owned establishments—ragtime had special significance for African-Americans. “It’s a creation by Africans in the western hemisphere,” says Cheryl Lynn Bruce, director of Saturday’s event. “I was struck that this was the music that greeted many of the blacks who came up during the Great Migration.”
There weren’t many recordings made of early ragtime, especially compared to the jazz and blues that succeeded it in popularity—the genre peaked before recording technology was widely available. Scholars and musicians such as Robinson have been working to re-create its sound. As far as Robinson can determine, most of the songs that will be performed on Saturday were originally played at the Pekin, either by locals or by musicians passing through. But he and his seven-piece band—which includes saxophonist Ernest Dawkins, trumpeter Robert Griffin, and drummer Dushun Mosley—will also play one of his own compositions and a new piece merging ragtime and rap.
“I can’t imagine what it will sound like,” says Bruce, who wrote the lyrics with scriptwriter McKenzie Chinn, “but I know Reginald said he had been part of a presentation that did somehow use those two forms.”
Like shows from the first decades of the 20th century, “An Evening at the Pekin Theatre” will give the band a break with interludes of singing, dancing, and comedy—Saturday’s performers also include Sydney Charles, Breon Arzell, Destiny Strothers, and Christopher Audain. The story, such as it is (Bruce says the script is only 14 pages), will incorporate pieces of the history of the Pekin and of Bronzeville.
Sadly, not even the building that was once home to the Pekin still exists. Motts died in 1911, and subsequent owners lacked his business acumen. (It’s said his ghost disapproved of the white owners that followed, and showed it by making the curtain stick; it had always worked perfectly when he was alive.) During World War I, it became a dance hall that booked early jazz musicians such as King Oliver, but Prohibition killed it entirely. Ignominiously—and ironically, considering its origins as a gambling den—it was converted to a police station before being demolished sometime in the 1940s.
Technically “An Evening at the Pekin Theatre” will not take place on the actual Pekin site, which is now occupied by the Dearborn Homes. Instead it will be across the street, in a parking lot where it will be easier to set up a tent. But it’s close enough.
Bruce hopes the show will bring back the feel of a lost Chicago that even some of the oldest members of the audience will remember only vaguely. “It’s history,” she says, “and that’s what’s intriguing about the project. It’s investigating in an entertaining way what was and how what is came to be. And that’s the only way we can fully appreciate where we are.”
“An Evening at the Pekin Theatre” Sat 6/17, 7 PM, northwest corner of 27th and S. State, 312-422-5580, ilhumanities.org, free, all ages