“The One and Only” – Remembering East Austin’s Harlem Theater
Opening its doors October of 1935, The Harlem Theater of East Austin was an iconic cultural hub of the black community. Being one of only seven black-owned theaters in the country at the time, it offered a comfortable and enjoyable movie-going experience for all its patrons. Instead of being forced to enter through the fire escape or required to sit in the balcony as in segregated theaters, black families were treated as any equal paying customer.
The Harlem Theater was a welcoming place where people of all ages could come and escaped the world around them. Even though big-star movies would take a year or more to reach the theater and prestigious films were never shown, it didn’t stop movie-goers from coming to watch the same movies over and over again.
And movies weren’t the only thing the theater offered. The venue hosted local performances such as magic shows and talent shows, for which local black-owned businesses would donate prizes. The theater also had a concessions stand so popular it was a planned meal destination even for non-movie goers. People came out in particular for their famous chili dogs. In fact the theater’s main profit came from concessions, not ticket sales.
After the original owner George Jones passed away in 1951, his family decided to sell the business. The theater then was taken over a white man, Sam Lucchese, who desired and succeeded in keeping the space a part of the black community. He was tragically murdered in 1961, right outside the Harlem. It was believed to be an attempted robbery of concessions money which he was carrying at the time. The news was a sad shock for the community.
The theater continued trading hands from owner to owner until the early 1970s, when three men bought it determined to renovate and reopen. Ultimately, the theater’s legacy ended in 1973—the same year it was reopened—when it was burned to the ground. How it happened remains a mystery, as the arsonists were never brought to justice.
While the Harlem Theater had a sad demise, the surviving community will never forget how much this theater impacted them, and created a place so many families called home.
Behind the Scenes in E4’s Creative Production Process
To share memories and colloquial knowledge of Harlem Theater, E4 Creative Mentors Jadzia Padilla and Jorge Ramirez interviewed longtime Austinites Sam Alexander and Pearl Cox. Jennifer Chavez captured video of the interviews.
The Creative Mentor team collectively conducted research to learn about East Austin landmarks, and seeked credible local figures to share their knowledge of the area. Production logistics were overseen by AV Producer Mikayla Dumas, and Interactive Producer Grant Loveless.
This article was written by Karina Mata, and edited by Jadzia Padilla and E4 Producer Victoria Valadez.