Originally published March 23, 2016. Updated images provided May 1, 2020.

Excelsior Hall

Image of Patrick Chappelle and LaVilla during the early 20th century.

For the first decade of the 1900s, Patrick Chappelle dominated the southeastern United States’ entertainment scene. The oldest son of Lewis and Annie Chappelle, Patrick Chappelle was born in Jacksonville in 1869. He began his career in the early 1880s, singing and playing guitar at hotels in Florida and along the eastern seaboard. One show’s engagement on a steamboat running between Boston and Nantucket introduced Chappelle to Mr. Benjamin Keith, a gentlemen who was one of nation’s most prestigious vaudeville theatre owners.

After performing in the vauderville circuit, Chappelle returned to Jacksonville in 1898. Later that year, after successfully launching a pool hall on Bay Street, Chappelle teamed up with his brothers James and Lewis to open the Excelsior Hall. Situated on Bridge Street in LaVilla, the Excelsior was one of the first black-owned theatrical venues in the South. The 500 capacity venue quickly became known for its whiskey and almost cost Chappelle his life in August 1898. Standing outside of his saloon, Chappelle was attacked and almost beaten to death by a mob of men who blamed him for a dosing of patrons inside the saloon with “knockout drops.”

A year later, Chappelle closed the Excelsior after a dispute with his landlord and Mayor of Jacksonville, J.E.T. Bowden, moved to Tampa and opened the Buckingham Theatre Saloon near Ybor City. In 1900, Chappelle established The Rabbit’s Foot Minstrel Company, a traveling vaudeville show. With at least 75 performers and musicians each season, by 1902, Chappelle had increased his earnings to $1,000 a week. By 1904, Chappelle’s LaVilla-based Rabbit’s Foot show had expanded to fill three Pullman railroad carriages and had become known as “the leading Negro show in America.”

Sanborn map illustrating property owned by Pat Chappelle at 624-626 W. Church Street.

Little Savoy Theatre

From left to right: Robert Cole, James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson. Image credit.

Walter O’Toole, owner of Bridge Street’s O’Toole’s Saloon, opened the Little Savoy Theatre at 610 West Forsyth Street on October 3, 1904. O’Toole promoted the Little Savoy as the “handsomest and coziest little theatre for colored performers in the South.” Although it remained in business for only two months, the Savoy’s stock companies staged entertainments that shared a diverse bill with originally-written dramatic sketches and vocal performances.

Entertainment included several dramatic sketches and vocal performances of Bob Cole and John Rosamond Johnson compositions. Although LaVilla’s Little Savoy Theatre didn’t last long, Cole and Johnson would go on to tour America and Europe with their act. Two of their most successful musicals were “The Shoo-Fly Regiment” (1906) and “The Red Moon” (1908). In addition, Rosamond would go on to become a featured player in the first performance by an all-black cast on Broadway.

By 1913, the building that housed Walter O’Toole’s Little Savoy Theatre had become a LaVilla pool hall. Today, this site is the drive-through lanes for Wells Fargo at Broad and Forsyth Streets.

Colored Airdome

1913 Sanborn map illustrating the location of the Colored Airdome and Globe Theatre at W. Ashley and N. Broad Streets.

On May 4, 1909, Lionel D. Joel and Mr. Glickstein opened the Colored Airdome Theatre on a lot next door to Frank Crowd’s Bijou Theatre at 601 West Ashley Street. They claimed their $5,000 open-air theatre was “positively the largest, grandest and coolest theatre exclusively for colored people in the entire Southland.” Featuring over 800 seats, the Airdome booked its acts directly from New York, Chicago, and Boston. Tickets were sold for 10 cents and advertisements clearly stated, “Exclusively for Colored People.” The Airdome’s opening night included an orchestra led by Eugene F. Mikell, music director for the Cookman Institute.

The Theatre became the hit Joel and Glickstein envisioned and quickly became known for its nightly standing-room only audiences. Performances included “Mr. Joplin’s Ragtime Dance” and the “Jacksonville Rounder’s Dance.” Since ‘rounder’ meant pimp, it was later renamed “The Original Black Bottom Dance.” Other popular acts included “Petrona Lazzo,” the “Cuban soubrette,” and “Chinese impersonator” Coy Herndon and comedian Slim Henderson.

The Colored Airdome would also go on to put Jacksonville on the map during the formative years of a new genre when it was identified as the location of the first published account of blues singing on a public stage. The John W.F. Woods performance took place on April 16, 1910. The end of the Colored Airdome can possibly be traced back to 1912, when the women’s clubs of Jacksonville persuaded the mayor to ban all theaters, vaudeville shows, and movies to close on Sundays. By 1915, the Colored Airdome was no more.

The Globe Theatre

Frank Crowd, a prominent Jacksonville-based barber and shooting gallery owner, opened the Bijou Theatre on July 19, 1908. Occupying a new three story building at 615 West Ashley Street, the 218-seat theater featured silent films as its primary attraction. The first feature length motion picture ever produced, “The Story of Moses,” was shown at the Bijou. A few months later, Kalem Studio’s “The Artist and the Girl,” one of the earliest films produced in Jacksonville, made it to the Bijou’s screen. By May 1909, Crowd had expanded the Bijou with a stage for vaudeville shows.

However, facing too much competition from the new Colored Airdome next door, Crowd closed the Bijou in 1909. Down but not out, Crowd invested $25,000 into his theatre, adding new inclined floors, a balcony, private boxes, and an all-tungsten lighting system. On January 17, 1910 he reopened as the Globe Theatre. In addition, the team of Rainey and Rainey joined Crowd’s Globe Stock Company that January. At the time, Ma Rainey (Gertrude Pridgett Rainey) was billed as a ‘coon shouter’ and the attraction of her powerful moan was undeniable. It was observed that she was receiving three or four encores every night. By the end of her career, Ma Rainey had become billed as “The Mother of the Blues,” making several recordings with influential jazz figure Louis Armstrong.

During its heyday, the Globe was acknowledged as the “anchor to the southern road shows” and its Russell-Owens stock company was one of the most influential pioneering African-American theatrical stock companies in the country. Like its popular neighbor, the Colored Airdome, changing times eventually sent the Globe into a downward spiral and by 1916, its doors were closed. However, unlike most historical buildings in town, the Globe still stands. In 1934, the vacant building became the new home of the Clara White Mission.