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Remembering the Lafayette

April 3rd, 2013 by DavidFreeland

News of the Lafayette Theater’s recent demolition prompted me to dig up the following article, which I wrote for New York Press back in February of 2005 but which I don’t think was ever published.

The Lafayette Theater during its acclaimed engagement of Orson Welles' Macbeth, 1936

The Lafayette Theater during its acclaimed engagement of Orson Welles’ Macbeth, 1936

David Freeland

Harlem’s Hidden Survivor

As Harlem’s legendary showplace, the Apollo, proceeds with its much-publicized restoration, now might be a good time to remember the Apollo’s spiritual predecessor, the Lafayette Theater.  Unlike the Apollo, whose price tag for refurbishment totals $55 million (according to a New York Times article last year), the Lafayette has been largely forgotten.  You won’t find a plaque marking the site, and an Internet search yields little information on its history.

But prior to the Apollo’s 1934 opening, the Lafayette was the most important African-American theater in the country, cited by historian Jervis Anderson as the first of the major Harlem theaters to desegregate.  For African-American performers, playing the Lafayette meant they had made it, and virtually every artist in black entertainment of the 1920s, from Bessie Smith to Louis Armstrong, graced its stage.  During the theater’s prime (from the teens to the early 30s) it acquired something of a mythic status; the “Tree of Hope,” a chestnut outside its entrance on 132nd Street and 7th, became a good-luck charm for the many hopefuls who longed to play there.  With the ascendancy of the Apollo, however, the Lafayette’s glory days were numbered, and the live musical shows that once brought it fame had ceased by the mid 1930s.

Not everything was lost, though.  Today, walking north on Adam Clayton Powell (7th Avenue) above 125th Street, one catches sight of a wide building adorned with crosses and bells.  Sure enough, it’s the Lafayette, hidden beneath a modern façade.  Inside, a staff member at the Williams Institutional Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (which bought the building in the early 50s) is quick to downplay its theatrical history.  With a touch of frustration, she claims nobody expressed interest in the building until the façade was changed some years back; then, historians and preservationists got up in arms.  To her, the Lafayette is part of the past, bearing little connection with the space today, and she points out that, from a historical perspective, the theater was never owned by African-Americans.  Her argument underscores not just the divide between show people and “church folk” but the differing opinions on how Harlem’s legacy should be preserved.

But in New York the past is never far removed from the present, and while the interior has been heavily altered, a gold-painted dome, ornamented proscenium, and sloping auditorium (divided by large pillars) all speak to the building’s former life.  If sinners and saints share the same coin, then church is the flip side of theater, and the spirit of the Lafayette is alive at Williams Institutional’s Sunday morning service.  The strains of “Wade in the Water” rise in a supple contralto, while later a small congregation gathers for communion and prayer in front of the altar (near what once was the stage).  Goals may have changed, but what made the Lafayette so special – that inspirational convergence of art and community – remains.


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