Metropolitan Theatre

4649 S. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive,
Chicago, IL 60653

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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”.

Contributed by Bryan Krefft

Recent comments (view all 5 comments)

Life's Too Short
Life's Too Short on September 10, 2006 at 3:03 pm

I photographed the Met around 1989-90 somewhere. It looked much as it appears in the photo above, though my gut (based on seeing hundreds of these buildings) says the interior was pretty trashed. You could easily spot this one from the South Side Elevated.

JonPutnam
JonPutnam on December 20, 2007 at 9:52 pm

CHICAGO TRIBUNE (December 10, 1997)

“Final Curtains Coming Down on Met Theater — Community Split on Whether Razing of Landmark is Loss”

by Jerry Thomas


Toni Constonie circled the streets around the old Metropolitan Theater all morning Tuesday. From her blue van, she kept an eye out for the wrecking ball crew.

But neither her vigilant watch, nor the protests she helped organize, nor the last-minute calls she made around the city could save this once-popular show house at 4640-48 S. King Drive in the city’s Grand Boulevard neighborhood.

The city decided on Tuesday to finally tear down the building, which had lingered in demolition court for almost 10 years. A construction crew arrived shortly after noon with a crane for the four-week project of razing the 81-year-old, red brick and terra cotta building, which closed in 1979.

The order to raze the building has caused mixed reaction in a neighborhood trying to recapture its legacy as the center of entertainment and commerce in the African-American community.

“We are much concerned and very angry that they will move ahead with the demolition without the support of the citizens from the 3rd Ward,” said Harold Lucas, president of the Black Metropolis Convention and Tourism Council, a community organization.

But some neighborhood residents only questioned why demolition took so long.

“When I was going there, rats were running across the stage; I saw more rats than actors,” said a middle-aged man who declined to give his name.

For those who joined picket lines, made appearances in court and telephoned elected officials and preservationists in an attempt to save the building, the Met is one of the last landmarks along the old 47th Street entertainment and business corridor, where blacks could also shop for food and clothing. Operation PUSH once used the theater as a meeting place.

“I am disappointed, but it’s not the first building I lost,” said Constonie, mentioning the Jordan Center, at 35th and State Streets, and the Regal Theater, 47th and King. “(The Regal) was one of the most famous buildings, only second to the Apollo in Harlem. We had it torn down for a parking lot.”

Opponents of the demolition also see the city’s action as evidence that elected officials do not value landmarks in the black community as much as they do in other neighborhoods. Two years ago, the community stopped the demolition of the Supreme Life Building at 35th and King, and now that property will be converted into a visitors information center, Lucas said.

About 1,500 residents, he said, had signed a petition objecting to the Met being razed; Lucas said several entrepreneurs have expressed interest in the building.

Much of the neighborhood criticism is aimed at Ald. Dorothy Tillman (3rd), whose office sits directly across the street from the Met. Several people questioned why she has failed to find an adaptable use for the property, and they hold her accountable for allowing somebody to steal the terra cotta symbols from the building.

Tillman said the criticism against her is politically motivated by those seeking her ward seat.

She stressed that she prevented the building from being torn down for the past eight years because she got a stay of protection.

Now, however, she supports the demolition because the building has been deemed structurally unsound and she believes construction of the long-awaited Lou Rawls Cultural and Resource Center will begin next year. “We will look like Chinatown and Greektown,” she said.

City officials, however, reject the claim they were not protecting the best interest of the community.

“I think everyone realizes the city is totally in favor of rehabbing when the resources are there. I personally feel like nobody can argue that point,” said Kathleen Walsh, public information officer for the Department of Buildings. Walsh said she didn’t have information available on the current owners of the Met.

“Sometimes,” she said, “I think the city gets unfairly blamed when it is the owners of these properties who have walked away, and then the burden does become that of the community. It represents the challenges we face. What happens tomorrow if a child gets raped in that building? Then, it is the city that did not move fast enough.”

Byte19
Byte19 on January 12, 2012 at 12:00 am

My Movie-Loving Genes were Born In This Palace… Thanks to My Mom knowing the owners at the time… Me and My Sister were getting in EVERY Thursday, Friday AND Saturday for FREE with free drinks and candy… Jaws, Carrie, Enter The Dragon, and Blaxploitation fare like Coffey, and Run Ni**er Run was running across my young eyes and I Was HOOKED!!! Thanks Mom..

rivest266
rivest266 on June 26, 2012 at 1:54 am

Grand opening ad in the photo section of this theatre.

delano
delano on March 11, 2014 at 5:05 am

This comment affects to entries (THE MET & THE REGAL). Chicago has an address scheme that causes EVEN numbers to appear on the WEST and NORTH, while ODD numbers appear on the EAST and SOUTH.. The Regal is on the EAST side of King Drive, therefore 4719. The MET was across the street therefore it would have been something like 4744 …

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