Posted on 10/10/2009

Photo taken on October  9, 1910

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The Monroe Theater is one of the oldest surviving vaudeville
The building is listed on the National Register of Historic
Builder and Owner of the Morton Theater in Athens
Born a slave
Also Known As 'Pink'
Monroe Bowers Morton
and operated by an African American

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The Man Behind the Historical Morton Theater in Athens, Georgia

The Man Behind the Historical Morton Theater in Athens, Georgia
Monroe Bowers Morton (1856 - 1919), was born in Athens, Georgia to an enslaved biracial mother, Elizabeth Morton, and a prosperous white man, James B. White. As he was born a slave, little is known about his early life, but we do know that some time after he and the other slaves were freed, Morton eventually established himself as a contractor. By the time he was 30, he was living in an exclusive Black neighborhood close to, but in the shadow of, the mansions owned by wealthy white Athenians.

In the latter part of the 1800s “Pink,” as the very light-skinned Morton was called, became involved in politics and attended the 1896 Republican National Convention in Chicago at which William McKinley was, nominated for the presidency. After McKinley’s election, Morton was made postmaster of Athens as a reward. Five years later, he returned to “civilian” life as a builder and a financier, having acquired at least two dozen houses and buildings around Athens.

In 1909, Morton decided to construct his own building. No one can testify to his specific motivations for wanting the theater, but there is some speculation that he wanted a space for Blacks similar to the whites-only facility in town.

For the most part, Morton enjoyed the support of his peers for his new project, but not every Black person was thrilled. According to Thomas L. Riis, a musicologist and former University of Georgia instructor who has done extensive research on the Morton and on Black Vaudeville, there was obvious disdain among some “upper crust” Blacks who feared that Morton was building a place for the showcasing of “coon” songs.

Perhaps that’s why during construction, the Morton was always referred to by its owner as an “opera house” – a phrase that for some reason was much more soothing to the fearful than the word “theater.” Upon completion in 1910, the Morton was hailed as an impressive accomplishment, especially because it was financed, built, and owned by a Black man living in a small Southern city that had few paved streets and an active livery stable at the time. The ground floor was designed as functional office space for up to six Black businesses. But through one entrance, up one flight of stairs lay the theater.

The first performance at the Morton was a concert performed by Miss A.C. Simmons, a noted Black concert pianist who played selections by Bach and Beethoven on May 18, 1910. Over the years touring acts like the Original Dixie Dandy Minstrels, The New York Follies, the Butterbeans and Suzie Review – known for their performances at the Cotton Club in New York– and other traveling revues performed in the theater, but the Morton was designed to be more than a Vaudeville house.

The Morton Theatre’s prime was short-lived. Though the Morton family retained ownership of the building after Pink Morton’s death in 1919, it suffered from an erratic succession of poor managers. With the death of Vaudeville and the advent of talkies in the ‘20s, the theater began to be used less and less frequently. The businesses housed under the same roof kept the building solvent.

In the 1930's, Charlie Morton, Pink's son, turned the place into a movie theater, and it continued to be a prominent gathering place in the local community. After a fire in the 1950's, the building was closed down.

The Morton family sold the Morton Building in 1973, and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. And has been locally designated as a Historic Landmark (February 2, 1988).

Riis, Thomas L., Black Vaudeville, The TOBA, and the Morton Theatre: Recovering the History