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Florida Chitlin' Circuit

 

By: Valerie T. Simuro 

      Inspiration often comes in unexpected ways.  While thinking about how to write this historical narrative and incorporate all the research that I had compiled on music venues, my thoughts ran to a cut and dry narration of places and events.  This did not sound appealing.  I wanted to write a narrative that brought the venues to life and had a cohesive story line.  My inspiration came as I listened to a class interview with Jack Wilkins, a professor at the University of South Florida. He mentioned the phrase ‘music circuit.’ This started me thinking that, just as there is a circuit of venues today, perhaps there was the same in the early years of jazz, especially for African-American musicians in the days of segregation. There was, and it was called the “Chitlin’ Circuit.”

     During the Jim Crow years it was hard for black musicians to earn a living, thus the “Chitlin’ Circuit” was born. It was the collective name given to various bars, barns, dancehalls, recreation centers, nightclubs, restaurants, and concert halls throughout the country where it was safe for African-American musicians to perform. Black entertainers and their fans were not always welcome in whites-only venues.[1]  The earliest informal mention that I found of the Chitlin’ Circuit referenced the traveling tent shows in the late 19th century, where black vaudeville acts performed in blackface. The circuit became more formalized in the early 1900s with the development of the Theater Owners Booking Agency (TOBA), which booked black entertainers. The name has a pejorative connotation. It derives from the soul food item chitterlings, stewed pig intestine, which is closely associated with black culture in the United States. Before the American Civil War the leftovers of slaughtered pigs, including the intestines, were fed to African-American slaves throughout the Southern United States.

     Artists who worked for TOBA often joked that it stood for “tough on black asses,” a reference to the obstacles that African-Americans even working for black agents and theater owners. TOBA began in 1909 and disappeared during the Great Depression. The association is more often thought of as related to black theater or vaudeville while the Chitlin’ Circuit is usually associated with musical artists. The actual Theater Owners’ Booking Association has a fairly specific life span, whereas the “Chitlin’ Circuit” is a more informal term used by performers well into the middle of the twentieth century.

     Although there were music venues throughout the eastern, southern, and upper mid-west areas of the United States,[2] this paper will concentrate on the Florida music venues[3] which were stops along the Chitlin’ Circuit. Many nightclubs and dance halls emerged on the circuit. There was an unwritten rule followed by performers on the circuit.  They would only play in a city that had a black radio station.  During that era, for the most part, African-Americans didn’t read the entertainment section of the newspaper.  They got their information through flyers in their church bulletin, word of mouth, or by listening to the radio.[4]

     This narrative will begin at “The Ritz” in Jacksonville in a neighborhood that was known as the “Harlem of the South.” The Ritz was a stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit.  It was built in 1917 and originally named the Rizoli Theater.  The Ritz Theater was designed in the Art Deco style by local architect Jefferson Powell. The inside of the Ritz has beautiful chandeliers and original checkered floors. The theater has recently undergone a $2 million dollar renovation.  The sign and northwest corner are all that remain of the original building.[5]  The Florida Theatre in Jacksonville was another popular stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit. It was built on the site of a dilapidated police station. It became an integral part of Jacksonville culture.[6] 

     In the 1950s, Sarah’s Restaurant and The Cotton Club in Gainesville were two stops on the Chitlin’ Circuit.[7] Both establishments were owned and operated by Sarah McKnight, an African-American businesswoman. Sarah’s Restaurant was located at 732 NW 5th Avenue. It served as a lunch counter during the day and a club by night.  Many artists would play at both venues before heading on to the next stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit.      

      The South Street Casino in Orlando was a performance hall that featured musicians that traveled the ‘Chitlin’ Circuit.’ The Casino housed a basketball court and a skating rink for young adults. The Casino acted as an African-American recreation center during the day and a performance center at night.  The building was severely damaged by fire and finally demolished in 1987.[8]

     In the 1920s, after dark on summer evenings the streets of 22nd Street South in St. Petersburg, Florida came alive with people strolling down the main drag calling greetings to each other.  “There was always something going on.  Somebody out twenty-four seven, let me tell you,” said Bobby Bowers.[9] The Manhattan Casino seemed to be the heart of African-American social life in St. Petersburg. It became their refuge from the racism that greeted them daily.  The Manhattan Casino was one of the most important stops on the Chitlin’ Circuit. 

     More than any other venue, the Manhattan Casino, nicknamed “The Home of Happy Feet,”[10] (an name meant to echo Harlem’s famous Savoy Ballroom) was the center of nightlife in the African-American community during the segregation era.  From 1925 until it closed in 1968, the Manhattan was “the” place to be. For a few hours, the place came alive, with men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns[11] enjoying the pulsating music. It was a place where they could forget for a little while daily hardship and the bitterness of segregation.

      Originally the building was called the Jordan Dance Hall. It was twelve thousand square feet. A narrow wooden staircase led to the second-floor entrance. Wooden benches lined each side of the long dance hall.  At the south end of the dance floor stood a small bandstand.  Behind the musicians were the orchestra room, restrooms and a rear exit stairway, probably used by the musicians to transport their instruments to and from the venue. In the parking lot of a drive-up restaurant across the street, music lovers sat in and on cars in the night air listening to some of the jazz greats.

     There were other music venues nearby: the Melrose Park Clubhouse just west of 22nd on Fairfield Avenue; the Amusement Center, a converted warehouse at 22nd Street and 6th Avenue; the “crow’s nest” section of the La Plaza Theater on downtown Central Avenue; and the Harlem Theater at 1017 3rd Avenue South.  But for the most part, the “Home of Happy Feet,” was the heart and soul of the black community in St. Petersburg. 

     Black music artists were often not allowed to perform in segregated venues. When jazz greats played the Manhattan Casino, white and black music lovers stood shoulder to shoulder applauding and rocking to the music.[12] When we remember the Chitlin’ Circuit, we can celebrate the richness of the music that was created, shared, and enjoyed by people of all races.

 

 

Figures

1. The Ritz Theatre (1940s?). The Ritz was formerly known as the Rizoli Theater, which was built in 1917. The theater was located in the historic African-American community of La Villa, often referred to as the “Harlem of the South.”

<https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ritz_Theatre,_Jacksonville_FL.jpg#/media/File:Ritz_Theatre,_Jacksonville_FL.jpg

3a, 3b.  The Florida Theater in Jacksonville

4. Sarah’s Restaurant, Gainesville. Sarah’s Restaurantcourtesy of the Matheson History Museum Collection. Sarah’s Restaurant was located at 732 NW5th Avenue in Gainesville. It was a lunch counter by day and a club at night.

5a, 5b. Cotton Club, Gainesville. The Cotton Club located at 837 SE 7th Avenue in Gainesville, started out as a PX on Camp Blanding during World War II. Cotton Club as it stands today, image courtesy of Joanna Grey 2015. The building was purchased by William and Eunice Perryman and transported in pieces to its location near their grocery store. The Perrymans opened the Perryman Theater. Perryman’s Grocery as it stands today, image courtesy of Joanna Grey 2015. http://floridarevealed.tumblr.com/post/130701953614/sarah-mcknight . Sarah McKnight who owned and operated Sarah’s Restaurant, bought the Perryman Theater and opened the Cotton Club in 1950. It is speculated that the club’s license was not renewed because it catered to both black and white patrons during segregation. It closed in 1952.

6. Louis Armstrong performing at the Manhattan Casino in 1957. http://www.tampabay.com/blogs/soundcheck/content/friday-relive-jazz-manhattan-casino-mahaffey-theater/2051160

7. A cutaway view of the Manhattan Casino’s layout. Courtesy of Don Morris, St. Petersburg Times. The photograph was obtained from the book, St. Petersburg’s Historic 22nd Street South, written by Rosalie Peck and Jon Wilson. Referenced in endnote 10.

8a, 8b. This is a photograph of the Sno-Peak, the drive-up restaurant across the street from the Manhattan Casino. Courtesy of St. Petersburg Times. The photograph was obtained from the book, St. Petersburg’s Historic 22nd Street South, written by Rosalie Peck and Jon Wilson. Picture of Rosalie Peck, co-author of the book, St. Petersburg’s Historic 22nd Street South, dancing at the Manhattan Casino in its heyday. From the private collection of Rosalie Peck. The photograph was obtained from the book, St. Petersburg’s Historic 22nd Street South, written by Rosalie Peck and Jon Wilson. Referenced in endnote 10.

 


[1] Lauterbach, Preston. The Chitlin’ Circuit: And the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll. 1.st ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011. Depicts the hardship that black entertainers had to endure during segregation. See also, Urban Dictionary, http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=chitlin%27+circuit.

[2] Noted theaters and nightclubs on the Chitlin’ Circuit included the Royal Peacock in Atlanta; the Carver Theatre in Birmingham, Alabama; the Cotton Club, Smalls Paradise and the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York City; Robert’s Show Lounge, Club DeLisa and the Regal Theatre in Chicago; the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C.; the Uptown Theatre in Philadelphia; the Royal Theatre in Baltimore; the Fox Theatre in Detroit; the Victory Grill in Austin, Texas; the Hippodrome Theatre in Richmond, Virginia, and the Madam C. J. Walker Theatre on Indiana Avenue in Indianapolis.

[3] Although this paper only discusses a few of the Florida venues in detail, there were a multitude of venues, including but not limited to; the Manhattan Casino in St. Petersburg, the Apollo Ballroom and Royal Theater in Tampa, the Savoy Ballroom in Pensacola, the Cotton Club and Sarah’s Restaurant in Gainesville, the Ritz Theatre and the Two Spot in Jacksonville, the South Street Casino in Orlando, the Harlem Square in Miami, the Red Bird Café, the Cafe Deluxe, the Green Lantern, the Royal Palace in Tallahassee, and the Rabbit’s Place in Dade City. It is interesting to note what Lauterbach says in his book about the Chitlin’ Circuit (see supra endnote 2)“For many, the Chitlin’ Circuit is a literal reference to America’s underbelly; dirty, funky and filthy . . . In its most shadowy forms, the Chitlin’ Circuit found (bookmakers), bootleggers and racketeers managing artists and promoting shows.

[4] Gates, Henry Louis. The Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Reader p 535

[5] Accessed December 4, 2015. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ritz_Theatre,_Jacksonville_.g#/media/jpg#/media/File:Ritz_Theatre,_Jacksonville_FL.jpg.

[6]A Thing of Beauty, a Palace of Dreams. The Florida Theatre. Accessed December 4, 2015. http://floridatheatre.com/about-ft/history/.

[7]“Sarah McKnight.” Florida Revealed-Accessed December 4, 2015.   http://floridarevealed.tumblr.com/post/130701953614/sarah-mcknight.

[8] The Wells Built Museum of African-American History and Culture/The Casino. The Well Built Museum of African-American History and Culture. September 4, 2013. Accessed December 4, 2015. http://wellsbuiltmuseumofafricanamericanhistoryandculture.org/the-casino/.

[9] Peck, Rosalie, and Jon Wilson. St. Petersburg’s Historic 22nd Street South. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2006. Bobby Bowers lived in the neighborhood called the “Deuces.”  His family owned the Sno-Peak drive-in. It stood in a massive parking lot across the street from the Manhattan Casino.  Besides serving food, it provided an outdoor party spot for people who couldn’t get into the Casino. They listened to the music streaming from the open windows of the casino.  There was no air conditioning during that era. 

[10]Ibid at p 49.

[11]Ibid at p 50.

[12]Peck, supra endnote 10, pp 49-55.