4649 S. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive,
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When the Metropolitan opened in 1917, for the Ascher Brothers circuit on South Parkway (today South Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive) and East 46th Place, the South Side neighborhood was mostly middle-class Irish and German Jewish, but after WWI, as African-Americans poured in from the South, the area changed to a predominantly black neighborhood.
The Metropolitan Theatre could seat almost 1,400 in elegant surroundings, and was equipped with both a then-state of the art projection system, and also air-conditioning, still a rarity in movie theaters, especially ones outside the downtown Loop. It was designed by Henry L. Newhouse.
Until the Metropolitan Theatre opened, its nearest competition was the far-smaller Revelry Theatre around the block on 47th Street, which went out of business just a few years later. Ascher Brothers staffed the Metropolitan Theatre with an all-white staff, and in its early years, there was constant tension between the mostly African-American patrons and the theater’s employees, which according to the management of the theater, was not tolerated.
However, in 1923, a black customer filed a complaint of discrimination with the NAACP against Ascher Brothers, who pledged to work with the NAACP to avoid any future incidents of discrimination.
When Carl Lewis, a black man, was hired as the Metropolitan’s assistant manager in 1926, it marked the first time in Chicago that an African-American rose to managerial ranks at a theater.
Around this time, Ascher Brothers hired Sammy Stewart, who was the biggest name in jazz in Chicago in the early to mid-1920’s, to perform at the Metropolitan Theatre. Stewart began to draw crowds of African-Americans by the thousands to the theater, and it was soon the most successful in the circuit.
Not only was Sammy Stewart a huge draw, but other major names in jazz of the era like Fats Waller and Erskine Tate also played the Metropolitan Theatre.
By the mid-to-late-1920’s, it was the most popular motion picture theater in Chicago for blacks.
However, by the early-1930’s, with the Depression on and the opening of the palatial Regal Theatre and Savoy Ballroom just up South Parkway, the audience at the Metropolitan Theatre began to decline rapidly.
Also, the theater management was growing less and less amenable to pay for the soaring costs of A-list performers and first-run features, which the Regal Theatre and Savoy Theatre’s owners were more than happy to. It was taken over by Warner Brother Circuit Manaagement Inc in 1931.
Still, the Metropolitan Theatre survived, in fact, longer than its rival the Regal Theatre. Known in its later years as the Met Theatre, it screened second-run and later exploitation films, before closing in 1979.
Despite the pleas of area preservationists, stung by the loss of such landmarks as the Regal Theatre and the Savoy Theatre, who hoped to one day turn the former theater into a community center, the city ordered its demolition in late-1997.
Yet one more irreplacable piece of not only African-American, but Chicago history and culture was lost in the name of “progress”.
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