Eight theaters once thrived in the West End
Many West Enders were immigrants from southern states where all the theaters were segregated, and in many instances Blacks paid admission and went to the segregated part of the theaters with humiliating names like Crows Nest or Buzzards nest. The Regal Theater
At the Regal, originally called the Casino when it was built in 1908 at Clark and Linn streets, Saturday morning started with a cartoon carnival featuring cartoon favorites Tom and Jerry, Heckle and Jeckyl, Fog Horn Leghorn, Speedy Gonzales and Mighty Mouse. The Early Bird feature followed the cartoon. It was usually a cowboy flick featuring Red Rider and Little Beaver, Lash LaRue, The Cisco Kid, and the Durango Kidd, among others. Next came the feature film.
The Regal stopped all movies at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday night. At 6:30 the stage show began. Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, featuring the West End’s own Big Joe Williams, the young piano player “Sugar Child” Robinson, Peg Leg Bates, Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Thorpe, Buddy Rogers’ Orchestra, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughn, Butter Beans and Susie, and the Honey Dripper appeared. Many of the greatest African American entertainers of all time appeared, all at no extra cost above the fifteen cents general admission.
Today, the equivalent would be seeing Beyonce, Jay-Z, Prince, India Irie, Fifty Cents, Usher, Mary J. Blige, John Legend, Jill Scott and others at no extra cost.
Miss Mary tended the ticket booth and Mr. Thomas was the head usher. Built to seat 1400 patrons, it was full every Saturday. Louis Childers remembers the Regal: “You guys are really making me run through mental gymnastics, just seeing in the mind’s eye those Saturday's at the Regal Theater,watching Lash Larue and Fuzzy, Durango Kid & George Gabby Hayes. I'll never forget that there was always enough ice in the cup so that the bottle of pop came just to the top without spilling over and you could smell the popcorn as soon as you entered the lobby. I forget the ticket cost. Doesn't matter now. It was a part of my life that will last forever. On those summer days when it did not get dark until about 8:30 p.m., you would walk outside at 6:30 and you were blind for the first 60 seconds before you could focus and get your bearings. Judith Poe Cochran: “I don't recall ever hearing of the Piken or the Dixie. I did hear of the Hippodrome and the Roosevelt. If one of them was located on Central Avenue, I think I was in it at least once. I wish I'd had an opportunity to visit the theater that showed Black movies. I well remember those Tarzan movies, and how we cheered for the Whites against those savage, Black, half-naked Africans who talked funny — ummmgahwah. There was always a huge pot of water boiling to cook their White cap tives. The great White man Tarzan always saved the day. That was when we were Colored. What a joke. It still saddens me when I think how terribly brainwashed we were. Thank God for the 60s when Black became beautiful. The "show" (that's what we called the cinema back in the day) I most remember is the Regal.
I can't believe it sat 1400 people. My movie day was usually Saturda y -- after my chores were finished. Sometimes I went on Sunday, if I had first gone to church, which included Sunday school. My Cutter Street neighbor, Roberta Lawrence, worked in the Regal Concession stand for years. They had the best hotdogs in town. My favorite concessions were Good and Plenty and Sugar Babies. I can taste them now. The ushers, armed with flashlights, were the show police.
When I was 18, I went to my first stage show at the Regal. I think it was a Midnight Show. Anyway, I saw Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. I saw Pigmeat Markham, Moms Mabley and Butterbeans and Susie at a stage show. I don't remember if it was the same one. Thanks for stirring up the memories”. John Harshaw: “Looking back, Tarzan strikes me as the greatest communicator of all time. When he would say Umgahwah, the lions ran away, another time they would come forward and sit down. Umgahwah would send elephants charging the crooks or lifting Tarzan on their backs. I think Umgahwah meant everything from “Cheetah, go get Boy” to “Cook some dinner, Jane.” How they all understood what Tarzan wanted when he uttered the magic word, Umgahwah, is still a mystery to me. Tarzan movies distorted everyone’s view of Africa and Africans. All Africans were cannibals, none were educated. There were no professional people, no scientisst, and no World leaders. Debbie Sershion-Pettus
“How well I remember Jackie Wilson at The Regal. My mother took me when I was about eight or nine years old. When Jackie Wilson came out, the women started taking off clothes and panties and throwing them on the stage. I was shocked and scared.” The State Theater
Just like the Regal, the State had talent shows and big name entertainers. The Roosevelt Theater
Located at 425 Central Avenue, the Roosevelt Theater had its share of entertainers on the weekend. The Ten Commandments made its debut in the West End at The Roosevelt. After the ceiling collapsed, attendance declined. Juan and a cadre of gays lived across the street from the Roosevelt Theater. On Friday evenings, they would put on dresses and high-heeled shoes and strut downtown. Like Vine Street Betty, Juan would kick your butt if you got out of hand. The Hippodrome Theater
The Hippodrome, located at Ninth and Baymiller streets, boasted its amateur talent show on the weekend after the last movie. On every weekend, every theater showed a Chapter series featuring Superman, Batman and Robin, Rocket Man, The Spider Woman, Flash Gordon or the Green Hornet. If you had your card punched for every chapter, you got a free soda and hotdog. Gerald Smith remembers:
“Prophet Jones used to preach at the Hippodrome when he was in town; typically he gave out a number to be played. Also, once you got older, you could go to the Roosevelt theatre. That was really big time. I also remember the first time I went downtown to the Albee, once Blacks were allowed to attend. That was really a frightening day.” Lincoln, Piken, Dixie and The Rex theaters
The Rex was a theater of our fathers’ and mothers’ era. At the Lincoln, Piken and the Dixie, you could see Black Movies and movies with Black cowboys like Herb Jeffrie, the singing cowboy. Jeffrie got his inspiration for a Black cowboy series while he was in Cincinnati, Ohio. He saw a small Black child crying while playing with other children. When asked what the problem was, the child responded, “We’re playing cowboys and Indians and I want to be a cowboy, but there ain’t no Black cowboys.” Herb Jeffrie wrote:
“They showed love stories, adventure and drama pictures, all featuring Black actors and actresses, and often written and produced by Blacks. The Piken was a Black-owned chain of theaters expanded from The Piken Theatre in Chicago, the first major Black-run theater in the North. The Lincoln was also a Black-owned franchise.
Oscar Micheaux, America’s greatest Black filmmaker, and Spencer Williams, his contem porary, used both theater chains to display their films.
By the 1960s, enforcement of building code regulations and the emergence of television contributed to the closing of the Hippodrome, Lincoln, Piken and Dixie theaters. The Piken and Dixie were theaters where you had to share your popcorn, hotdogs or Milk Duds with the rats. If you were smart, you gave them their share first.” John Montgomery comments:
“We loved the Hippodrome, Roosevelt, Regal, Lincoln, and the State, but going "uptown" (as Chick mentioned) to the Albee, Grand, Palace, or the Keith to see first run movies in 3-D and cinemascope, was a real outing. From 7th Street we would go in bunches and make the White folks nervous.”
Visit Harshaw House for information about how you can obtain John Harshaw’s book “Cincinnati’s West End,’’ and his other books of local interest.