Wednesday, January 20, 2010

20 January 1909: M. B. "Pink" Morton Buys Land For Theatre

On this day in 1909, Monroe Bowers "Pink" Morton purchased the land on which he built the Morton Theatre. He purchased the two lots at the corner of Washington and Hull Streets from Cobb Lampkin for $2, 175.00 cash, and built and opened the theatre within 16 months. As with other buildings at "Hot Corner," his first floor provided office and retail space for black professionals, such as physician and dentist offices and the E. D. Harris drugstore. Over time, the Morton Theatre became "a proud symbol of the power and wealth of Athens' black middle class."

The auditorium and dressing rooms were on the second floor, with the balcony on the third level. The fourth floor had cheaper, gallery seating with benches as well as some small office space. The inaugural performance was a classical piano concert by Alice Carter Simmons of the Oberlin, Ohio Conservatory of Music; both black and white patrons attended.

The Morton Theatre hosted vaudeville acts as well as local performances, such as graduation ceremonies for the African-American schools, their plays and concerts, recitals by local music teachers, and an annual New Year's Day celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation for Athens' black community. Famous musicians such as Blind Willie Tell, Bessie Smith, and Louis Armstrong are also said to have performed at the theatre. Many years later, R.E.M. would film parts of their video "The One I Love" there.

The first silent films were shown in 1919, and by the 1930s, the building was a movie house run by M. B. Morton's son, Charlie.The building fell into disrepair as the Great Depression and boll weevil pushed many of Athens' black population north to find work. The office spaces on the first floor stayed occupied, but the theatre space was no longer used after a small fire in the projection room in the mid-1950s.

The family sold the building in 1973 to Bond Properties, and in 1979, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1981, the Morton Corporation purchased the building and gained grants from the National Endowment of the Arts, the Georgia Council for Arts and Humanities, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Historic Preservation division, and a Community Development block grant from the Athens City Council to start restoration of the property.

The title transferred to the Athens-Clarke government in 1991, who completed renovations to make it a fully functional theatre, reopening it again in 1994.

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