The history of theaters in Washington

Published 7:30 pm Wednesday, August 4, 2021

The last few weeks before school opening meant big changes for our waning summer routine. One of the things I would miss most was Saturday mornings at the Lennox Theater watching movies and cartoons.

Once school started, Saturday mornings were reserved for household chores and homework. Lena and I would watch our favorite cartoons: Mighty Mouse, Top Cat, Deputy Dawg, Tom and Jerry and Heckle and Jeckle to name a few, while sweeping and dusting the living room.  And we could get quite a few chores done watching or listening from another room.  But what I would miss most was going to the Lennox.  The Lennox was right around the corner from our house and we could walk there ourselves without the assistance of our big sister “Libby.”

Saturday morning brought a big crowd of kids to the Lennox and it was fun seeing the movies and cartoons with friends and classmates.

The Lennox was Washington’s first and only African American theater.

It opened 74 years ago on July 17, 1947.  It was at that time Washington’s newest enterprise, a motion picture establishment for the African American community, and was located at 327 W. Fifth St. near the corner of Fifth and Van Norden streets. The first movie featured was “It Happened In New Orleans.” The movie was first shown at 3 p.m. and was shown continuously until 10:45 that night. I was told it had a record turnout of adults and children.

William (Billy) H. Duke, a well-known businessman, was the proprietor of the theater.  Duke had the most modern equipment for his theater — and it was air conditioned!

Duke showed four movies a week and a Saturday morning comedy show for children.  The shows for us kids were the best.

But with school opening, our trips to the Saturday morning show came to a standstill.

My grandmother couldn’t have been more pleased because she felt movies were a tool of the devil to fill young folks heads with foolishness. I asked her once had she ever been to a movie theater.

She had not, but she sure knew a lot about them. S

he said Washington had movie theaters before her children were born (during the years 1910-1927.) She also said there was a theater here once for Minstrel and other shows long before the Civil War. It was a theater down town called Washington Hall.  While I cannot find a direct tie to Washington Hall, I have found in the letters and documents of a Union Soldier, a reference to an old building local Black people were using for a church during the union occupation. A letter from Corporal Zenas T. Haines of the Massachusetts Regiment 44th M.V.M refers to a group of soldiers that “went to a Negro church today in an old building not long since used as a theatre, the fresco and gilding still remaining about the proscenium.” The theatre she heard was on North Market Street

She talked about the movie theaters downtown which I later found searching old records. They were the Dixie Theatre (Main Street) operating in 1908; The Lyric (1908) where Big Bargain is today; The Gaiety (1909) Main Street where Coastal Rivers realty is today; The Gem (1910) across Market Street from the Post Office; The Bellmo (1916) 159 N. Market Street near the DMV Office; New Theatre (1914) (Turnage Theater location); and James Adams Floating Theatre (1914).

The Strand Theater in 1920 was where Down on Main Restaurant is today (in 1937 this became the Reita Theater) and the Historic Turnage Theater opened around 1930.

She even added that at one time there was a movie shown under a big carnival tent that was shown at the big field near Main and Telfair. This is confirmed by an entry about movie theaters in the book Washington On The Pamlico by Worthy and Loy.

My grandmother sure knew about movie theaters not to have gone to one!

Leesa Jones is a Washington native and the co-founder and executive director of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum.