Saturday, January 17, 2009

Bob Mott and the Pekin Theater


Robert T. "Bob" Mott was born in 1861 and arrived in Chicago in the 1890s, when he began operating a gambling house in the Custom House Place levee district on S. Clark St. He gained political power and used his success as a gambler to open a saloon in 1903 at 2700 S. State St., in the heart of the "Black belt," the segregated strip of city blocks running along S. State below 22nd St.

Gambling continued in the back rooms of the saloon, where it was well-known that police officers could have any drink they wanted on the house, in return for turning a blind eye. Mott's continued success and political influence allowed him to open the famous Pekin Theater at this location in 1906.

The Pekin became Chicago's leading African-American institution in the first decade of the 1900s, and its performances were widely renowned, as it was at the time the world's only Black-managed and operated playhouse. Luminaries including the Russian ambassador to the U.S. and Mrs. Potter Palmer enjoyed the performances of the Pekin players. Below is an advertisement for the Pekin from its peak years:


The Pekin's success (plus the death of "Mushmouth" Johnson, a rival underworld leader, in 1907) made Mott the city's leading Black power broker. When Chicago native Jack Johnson won the title of heavyweight champion of the world in 1910 (before celebrating at the Everleigh Club), it was Mott who led the celebratory welcoming parade and held a banquet in Johnson's honor at the Pekin.

After Mott's death in 1911, the Pekin was sold to Dan Jackson, and its reputation sank. Jackson turned the Pekin into a burlesque, and opened a scandalous "black-and-tan" cafe, the Beaux Arts, on the second floor, where racially-mixed customers danced to Jazz music. Hundreds attended on weekend nights. A 1917 police report states:
Lieut. Loftus...visited the "club" on the night of April 8 and found the dancing "very disgusting." There were 300 white and colored couples on the floor, the majority of whom were doing an underworld dance.
One can only imagine what an "underworld" dance would look like, but we get more details from a February, 1920 report published in the Tribune. The letter was clearly intended to raise an uproar, and uses every racially-insensitive term in existence, yet one can't help thinking the Beaux Arts sounds like a pretty fun place:
Lawless liquor - sensuous "shimmy" - solicitous sirens - wrangling waiters - all the tints of the racial rainbow - black and tan and white - dancing, drinking, singing - early Sunday morning at the Pekin cafe, 2700 South State street.

Those pleasure bent figures carousing about the gaudy second floor were not the ghosts of the long gone days of Chicago's roaring levee. They were real - the society man, the chorus girl, the gangster, the lawyer, the jazzbo - all heading the call of the bright lights.

It was a bit after midnight when the adventurers stopped under the soft red lamp that marks the Pekin. Half way up the stairs was a door with a peep hole, which framed a chocolate eye. At the top of the stairs the big brown man asked to see the card of admittance....

In came a mighty black man with two white girls. A scarred white man entered with three girls, two young and painted, the other merely painted. Two well dressed youths hopped up the stairs with two timid girls. Seven young men - they looked like the back o' the yards - came with two women, one heavy footed, the other laughing hysterically. Two fur coated "high yaller" girls romped up with a slender white man....

Meanwhile a syncopating colored man had been vamping cotton field blues on the piano. A brown girl sang.

"I'd take mos' any kind of chance," she screamed. Then she shimmied. A dollar turned the "shimmy" into a muscle dance that put the old time "hootch" to shame. Two black boys moaned and screamed on saxophone and clarinet....

Dancing "across the table" was in vogue. A painted girl would "give the eye" to a man across the hall and then they hurried to the dance floor. Once there, they picked a spot and wiggled. One girl returning from the floor found her chiffon waist disarranged and her hennaed hair was falling about her shoulders.
The fun ended in August, 1920, when two Irish police officers, who were being paid off by Jackson to allow the Beaux Arts to remain "wet" and in business, became involved in a physical alteration late one evening at the club, and ended up being shot and killed. In the ensuing political scandal, the Beaux Arts was closed, and the building was sold to the congregation of the Zionist Baptist Church (Rev. A. M. Martin, pastor), who held services there for several years.

In 1925, the old Pekin Theater became home to a district police station, which remained there until the building was demolished in the late 1940s to make way for a public housing project, Dearborn Homes, which still stands at the location of the Pekin today.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'M A NATIVE of Pekin, Ill, where there was a Pekin Theatre in my boyhood. Irony of the Black theatre in Chicago by the name Pekin is that in my hometown, no Blacks were allowed to live until about 1980, long after I'd lefr. - George H. Beres