Tuesday, May 18, 2010

18 May 1910: The Morton Theatre Opens!

On this day 100 years ago, the first performance was held at the new Morton Theatre on the corner of Hull and Washington Streets in downtown Athens.

purchased the two lots ... 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 the 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 1994.

There has been a year-long celebration for the Morton Theatre Centennial, and today there are several events planned that are free and open to the public. From 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. this afternoon, the Morton will host an open house for the community, featuring a Centennial Art Show, tours of the theatre, and cookies and punch in the E. D. Harris pharmacy office.

At 7:00 p.m., Dr. Rosalyn Floyd of the Fine Arts Department of Augusta State College will perform a piano concert, reminiscent of the first show ever performed at the Morton by Alice Carter Simmons exactly a century ago tonight. After the concert, free birthday cake will be available in the E. D. Harris pharmacy.

On Saturday night, the Morton will host a jazz concert featuring the "King of Strings" violinist Ken Ford and singer Avery Sunshine.

For more information about tonight's events and other plans for the year of celebration, contact Joyce Reifsteck at centennial@mortontheatre.com or (706) 613-3770.

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