Strolling up Washington Street in downtown Athens, past the 40 Watt and a sprinkling of popular bars and restaurants, one comes to Hull Street and the historic African-American business district known locally as the “Hot Corner.” Aside from a vibrant yearly festival celebrating the district’s history as a haven for black business and culture, the Hot Corner is rather quiet most days. Barbers clip hair at Brown’s Barber Shop and Wilson Styling and in the evenings, music wafts over from Little Kings Shuffle Club or the Georgia Theatre Rooftop. Quiet though it may now be, one Hot Corner landmark stands tall and majestic among the downtown landscape: the historic Morton Theatre.
In early 1910, the son of a former slave mother and a white father decided to develop what he envisioned as the heart of the African-American business district in Athens. Monroe Bowers Morton, known among friends and associates as “Pink” due to the fair complexion brought on by his mixed parentage, was as savvy of a developer and entrepreneur as one could find. Starting out as a hotel worker, Morton became a contractor, property investor, and newspaper owner, and was at one point possibly the wealthiest African-American businessman in America at the time.
Morton’s drive and force of character brought him not only into business but into politics as well. He was a Republican Party leader under President William McKinley, who later appointed Morton the second black Postmaster General of Athens. As was often the case in those days, this resulted in controversy among the local white establishment, a fact that seemed to leave Morton undeterred.
Pink Morton designed the Morton Theatre to serve a dual purpose: To provide new space and new opportunities for black business owners downtown as well as to create a new platform for black entertainment. To that end, the Morton Theatre opened in May of 1910 as a performance space for local, regional, and national Vaudeville performers while its street level became available for a variety of small businesses, including a mortuary and the office of Dr. Ida Mae Johnson Hiram, Georgia’s first black female dentist.
In the early days of its performance history, Morton Theatre saw use by traveling black Vaudeville acts. Many of these performers traveled between cities year-round, often sleeping in train cars as they moved from stage to stage. Though Pink Morton invited black entertainers from far and wide, he was said to only allow “clean entertainment” to be performed on his stage, and maintained a high standard of quality when seeking out acts.
The medium that would provide Morton Theatre with perhaps its biggest claim to fame, however, was music. During its heyday, Morton saw a procession of some of the world’s most influential jazz and blues artists.
Bessie Smith, nicknamed “The Empress of Blues” performed at Morton, as did her mentor, Georgia native Ma Rainey, one of the earliest blues performers recorded. Jazz luminaries Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and a young Cab Calloway came to Morton and in doing so invigorated and legitimized Athens as a vibrant scene for black entertainment right alongside its neighbors in Atlanta and Chattanooga.
Pink Morton died in 1919 at the age of 63. At this point in time, Vaudeville had begun falling out of favor and a public craving for newer forms of entertainment took its place. Pink’s son, Charlie Morton, took up management of the Morton Theatre and in the 1930s – after a brief and controversial stint as a burlesque house – decided to convert the upper floors of the building into a movie palace. Charlie had grown up playing small roles within the theater productions on his father’s stage, and now saw a need to adapt the building’s performance space to the needs of a new era. The Morton Building’s status as one of the first buildings in Athens to be wired for electricity made this task easier.
African-American-owned businesses continued to thrive within the lower floors of the Morton Building and the Hot Corner remained a central location among the black community. In addition to movies, the upper floors were used for commencements and other community gatherings throughout the 30s and 40s.
That all changed in 1954, when a small fire broke out in the theater’s projection room. The fire left little damage and was easily contained, but the incident nevertheless prompted a visit from the local fire marshal. The marshal took note of the single wooden stairway used to both enter and exit the theater. Taking this into account along with the theater’s 500-person capacity, the marshal gave Charlie Morton an ultimatum: install a proper fire exit or close the theater.
The Morton family chose the latter, and the Morton Theatre closed its doors for the first time since they were originally opened in 1910. Businesses remained in the lower floors, but the once proud hub of entertainment at the corner of Hull and Washington was no more.
Businesses on the Hot Corner and within the Morton Building came and went over the years. What once was an entirely African-American business district saw white-owned businesses open there as well. The El Dorado opened in the Morton Building in the 1970s, bringing Athens its first vegetarian restaurant. The El Dorado, along with its successor in the space, The Bluebird Cafe became a popular hangout among local students and musicians.
It didn’t take long for some of these musicians to rediscover the then long-abandoned theater space in the upper floors of the Morton. During their early days, the space was used by members of both R.E.M. and The B-52’s for rehearsal. Local musicians came to care for the space and helped ignite a renewed public interest in the theater.
In 1978, a collection of civic, education, and government leaders formed the Morton Theatre Corporation, a non-profit organization that aimed to restore the building’s performance space to its former function and glory; as well as honor its place in the African-American history of the south. The building was purchased by the corporation in 1981 with the support of grants such as the National Endowment for the Arts, and so began a nearly decade-long effort to restore the Morton Theatre.
Fundraising efforts continued throughout the following years, including Vaudeville-inspired performances at local high schools. In 1987, the citizens of Athens voted to fund the Morton renovation through the Special Projects Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) referendum.
The Morton Theatre’s renovation became not only a matter of restoring the building, but also of locating and preserving its records and memorabilia. Records had unfortunately been scattered throughout the years. “I found one set of blueprints hidden in the walls,” says former Athens Cultural Director Jill Jayne Read, a chief member of the restoration project.
Many records documenting the Morton’s history, as well as playbills covering its acts were lost or scattered over the years. One stroke of luck came when Read was able to track down records held at The Douglass Theatre in Macon. The Douglass was an African-American-owned Vaudeville theatre with a similar history to the Morton, and in keeping records of their own acts inadvertently shed light on the theater troupes and musicians coming to Macon after shows in Athens.
Businesses within the lower floors, including the Bluebird Cafe were relocated during this time as the restoration project became a renovation and conversion of the Morton Building as a whole. For the first time, the entirety of the building would be used in service of its performance space. A new fire tower was added to the building during this time, addressing the safety concerns brought up by the fire marshal over 30 years prior.
In 1991, ownership of the building was signed from the Morton Theatre Corporation over to the Athens-Clarke County Government under a new management agreement. The ACC government would provide staffing and operating support while the Morton Theatre Corporation would develop programming, policy, and procedures. Following this arrangement, the Morton Theatre was re-opened in the fall of 1993.
Today the Morton Theatre serves as a rental facility housing a variety of social and entertainment events. Church services are held there, as are graduations and memorials. Musical theater and dance are frequently found on the Morton Theatre stage from acts both local and national. The popular Flagpole Music Awards are held there as are the Athens Hip Hop Awards.
“Most people assume the building is the Morton Theatre and that’s all that ever went on there,” says Morton’s Facility Supervisor Lynn Battle Green. “More than 100 years ago, this Morton Building was an anchor of a thriving, successful African-American business district providing jobs, services, and entertainment, and a gathering place for an entire black community.”
Over a century has now passed since Monroe Bowers “Pink” Morton realized his ambition and threw the doors of his theatre open wide to the community. Though the years have brought ups and downs since those impactful early days, today the Morton Theatre stands tall once again as a beloved Athens landmark and an enduring testament to the will of its people.
*Author’s note – Since much of the history of the Morton Theatre is understood through incomplete records and anecdotal, sometimes contradictory evidence, dates referenced in this story are approximate.
Written by Rob White