The Paradox of Jazz and Sobriety at the Lyric Theater

We remember the Lyric Theater as a landmark in the early years of African American Jazz, but the theater had another side. The Times-Picayune one hundred years ago advertised a moralizing play based on the second most popular American novel of the 19th Century. 

“Advertisement,” Times-Picayune, December 4, 1919, Access World News – Historical and Current.

The Lyric Theatre was located at the corner of Iberville and Burgundy Streets in the French Quarter. It first started operating in February 24 of 1919 with a capacity of two thousand.  The owners were Luke Bordreaux and Clarence Benette (two white men). This Theatre however, was not like any other. In the ads it was presented as “America’s Largest and Finest Colored Theatre”. It was focused towards a black audience. The entertainers as well as the staff (ticket sellers, managers, ushers, doormen) were black. The Lyric brought a wide variety of shows, including: jazz, classical music, juggling, magic, dancing and contortionists. 

Image courtesy of the Historical New Orleans Collection. – Creator: Hansell’s Photgraphic Glimpses of New Orleans, by John N. Teunisson and F.F Hnasell and Brother, Limited . -Date:1908

The Lyric had a strong range of shows and advertisements that made it gain popularity all across New Orleans. It became so well known that even the white people became interested in the service. So, the owners decided to offer productions for “whites-only” that were at separate times than the “colored-only” and came to be known as the “Midnight Follies”. These shows were shown late at night (at around 11pm) since they were done after the shows for the colored. Printed invitations were required for admission. 

The main orchestra of the theatre was directed by  Professor John P. Robichaux who was a violinist. It was also composed of five of the best musicians: Alphonse Picou (clarinet), John Lindsey (trombone), Margaret Maurice (piano), Andrew Kimble (cornetist) and Arthur Singleton (drummer). Together they worked on performing all types of jazz. 

The theatre was associated with Theatre Owners Booking Association that worked with some of the greatest talent in the country. Many big stars at the time performed at this theatre. Among them was Josephine Baker who was a dancer and singer that was very invested in fighting racism. Ether Waters was one of the other important names that presented shows at this theatre. This American singer and actress who was based in the blues tradition. 

One of the plays this advertisement presented was the drama Ten Nights in a Barroom and What I Saw There presented by Luke A. Scott Players. This show is based on a novel written by Timothy Shay in 1854. It presents a theme related to the degradation of drink as it calls for prohibition. In other words, this play was used a lot to promote prohibition and the dangers of alcohol. Although it is hardly remembered today, this book enjoyed such popularity that it became the second best selling American novel of the Victorian Era, only behind Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Overall, the Lyric Theatre was definitely appreciated both by colored audiences and white audiences. People liked to spend their time here and have this space were they could value and enjoy some of the greatest entertainment of the time. The theatre was crowded every day and new shows would come in and out. Theaters were definitely an important part of society.

Citation

  1. CreoleGen, “The Lyric Theatre (1919-1927),” CreoleGen (blog), October 24, 2013, http://www.creolegen.org/2013/10/24/the-lyric-theatre-1919-1927/.
  2. “The Lyric Theatre – Stop 5 of 10 on the Tour The Birthplace of Jazz: A Walking Tour Through New Orleans’s Musical Past | New Orleans Historical,” accessed December 2, 2019, https://neworleanshistorical.org/items/show/1316.
  3. Ten Nights in a Bar-Room and What I Saw There,” in Wikipedia, December 1, 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ten_Nights_in_a_Bar-Room_and_What_I_Saw_There&oldid=928784153.
  4. “Ten Nights in a Bar Room,” accessed December 2, 2019, https://lostmuseum.cuny.edu/archive/ten-nights-in-a-bar-room.
  5. “Josephine Baker – Children, Banana Dance & Death – Biography,” accessed December 2, 2019, https://www.biography.com/performer/josephine-baker.
  6. “Ethel Waters | Biography, Songs, & Facts,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed December 3, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ethel-Waters.

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