Standard Theatre (Philadelphia)

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The Standard Theatre showcased Philadelphia's most talented black performers and jazz musicians in the early twentieth century. During its peak years (1915–1930), the Standard was one of Philadelphia's most famous and successful black theaters. Its exceptional success can be attributed to its owner, John T. Gibson, a black man who envisioned affordable entertainment for his own race.


The Standard Theatre (or Standard Theater) originally opened in 1888 on the 1100 block of South Street. The Standard was primarily a venue for local and traveling vaudeville programs.[1] The Standard was located near Philadelphia's neighborhoods with the highest black population: for instance, 23% of Philadelphia's black citizens lived in the 7th ward of South Philadelphia alone.[2] The theater would occasionally showcase black productions, such as in November 1897, when the theater presented Bob Cole and William Johnson's A Trip to Coontown, a musical created and performed by black men.[3] In spite of this, the Standard maintained segregated admissions, alienating many of the black residents in the neighborhood.

Before 1914, the Standard Theatre had seen occasional yet sporadic black ownership. For example, a group of black investors from New York City led by Gibson Young leased the theater in 1913, with the promise of "altogether coloured management." In spite of its initial great success, business declined. By that October the Standard was again leased to white ownership, which returned to practicing segregation. This was a great emotional loss to the black community, who saw the Standard Theater finally becoming a site of entertainment for their own race.[4]


John T. Gibson leased the Standard Theatre in January 1914. In an interview almost two years after his purchase, Gibson said the following: "When I bought the New Standard theater, I felt that there was a field in this city for good clean Negro vaudeville at popular prices."[5] Gibson's premiere show opened with J. Lubrie Hill's Darktown Follies, a musical comedy featuring Southern rural characters. The Freeman described the event as a "decided success", and one that "Philadelphia can be proud of... the citizens will rally around Manager Gibson." The original ticket prices ranged from 25 cents to $1.00.[6] In May, Gibson officially bought the Standard, becoming its sale owner and manager. At this point, the theater was valued at $70,000, making it one of the most valuable pieces of property owned by a single black man in the country.[7]

In its first two years, the Standard Theatre presented a variety of performances at low cost. The musical repertoire included southern folk songs, antebellum plantation songs, vaudeville numbers, musicals, and blues. The theater also showed fantastic performances, including magicians, acrobats, and animal performances. For example, a performance in February 1915 featured the Monkey Cabaret Orchestra, consisting of eight monkeys in the orchestra who accompanied more monkeys performing on stage with a dog.[8] Gibson took pride in his performers. When asked by a reporter what the theater relied on most, he replied "Good acts, well acted... it has been and will continue to be my method to regard the actor as a medium and not as a marionette."[9] In November 1915, Gibson finished renovations on the Standard Theatre. The renovations included newly painted interior, gilded ceilings, and increased seating to 2,000. While renovating his theater, Gibson employed black painters, artists, and construction workers in his efforts to spread wealth among the black citizens in the area.[10] After this point, Gibson claimed to have a standing offer for $180,000 for the theater, which he regularly declined: "Commercialism has nothing whatever to go with my project," he said. "My idea is to give my people the best of it all the time."[11]

By 1918, The Standard Theatre's success made John T. Gibson the richest black man in the state of Pennsylvania. The Standard Theater was one of only 59 theaters owned by a single person in Philadelphia. The Washington Bee credited his success to his optimism loyalty to his race: "Despite his great wealth, Mr. Gibson is a race man. His affections are remarkably developed. His heart is large. It is necessary at times to retrain his willingness. He is an apostle of optimism. His wide, his home, his theater, his city, his state, his country are the finest. There is no limit to their possibilities."[12]


During the twenties, the Standard Theatre peaked in its success. A major factor in this success was increased ticket sales. Massive audience turnouts resulted in part from new waves of black Philadelphians. In the beginning of the twentieth century, millions of black Americans fled to northern cities, escaping southern segregation and Jim Crow laws. This movement became known as the Great Migration. In the teens, Philadelphia's black population increased by fifty percent, reading a total of 134,220. This growth continued through the twenties, reaching a black population of 219,559 by 1930.[13] Newly arrived performers and audience members alike sought out theaters that hired and catered to black Philadelphians. In the early twenties, the Standard embodied black entertainment in Philadelphia. Gibson responded to growing audiences and monetary success by purchasing the nearby Dunbar Theater in 1921.[14]

In the 1920s, jazz flourished in Philadelphia. Jazz music infiltrated the mainstream music culture, receiving praise from more conventional musicians. For instance, the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra Leopold Stokowski compared jazz music to "the injection of new... blood into a dying aristocracy."[15] As jazz music became more recognized as socially respectable music, the Standard's audiences became more integrated as white Philadelphians came to more shows. While the shows had always been integrated, the increased number of white audience members contributed to Gibson's high earnings. Perhaps reacting to the influx of white audience members, black critics began to change their tastes in performances. Sandy Burns, a comedian who specialized in blackface performance, received rave reviews from Freeman papers in the teens. But by 1926, his performance received scathing reviews, and he was criticized as "a past master at portraying the old razor-slashing Negro."[16] While vaudeville comedy still lit the stage, Gibson changed his focus to musical performers, specifically big bands. It is during this period that The Standard Theater showcased some of the top names in jazz at the time. In 1927, Duke Ellington and his Washingtonians performed for two weeks at the Standard Theatre.[17] In December 1929, Louis Armstrong performed in the Standard, fronting for the Luis Russell Band.[18] Following Ellington and Armstrong's lead, numerous big band leaders added the Standard as a stopping point on their tours.


In 1931, Gibson sold the Standard Theatre due to his losses from the Great Depression. As big band music began its decline, the Standard Theater was turned into a movie theater, losing its performance space for live musicians and performers. The theater officially closed in 1954 and was demolished in 1957. In 1992, the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission placed a historical marker to commemorate the theater and its owner. It is placed at the theater's original location, on the 11th block of South Street.[19]

Other notable performers[edit]

A young Ethel Waters found inspiration in the performances she saw at the Standard. Early in her career, she often imitated acts she had seen when performing in other cities. In 1917, she returned to Philadelphia and performed at the Standard: "My return to Philadelphia turned into something of a triumph when we were booked for two weeks at the Standard Theatre, where I'd watched shows from the peanut gallery. It was still the city's leading Negro showhouse, and the engagement meant I was recognized in my home town as an established professional performer."[20] Although Waters moved to New York in 1919, she would still perform at the Standard whenever she passed through Philadelphia, most notably performing for a week in June 1928.[21]

The Whitman Sisters consisted of four sisters (Essie, Mabel, Alberta, and Baby Alice) who performed vaudeville routines all along the eastern coast. Their acts included tap dancing, musical numbers, comedy sketches, and crossdressing. The Whitman Sisters regularly performed at the Standard throughout the late teens as the star act of the show.[22]

Bessie Smith began to regularly perform at the Standard in 1923. Although she spent time touring around the country, she settled in Philadelphia, bringing her family with her. According to jazz trombonist Clyde Bernhardt, "Bessie Smith's sister, Viola, had a restaurant called Viola's Place across from the Standard Theater on South Street. Bessie put up the money for it..."[23]


  1. ^ Brian E. Alnutt, African-American Amusement and Recreation in Philadelphia, 1876–1926 (PhD diss., Lehigh University, 2003), 224.
  2. ^ Alnutt, African-American Amusement and Recreation, 93.
  3. ^ Alnutt, African-American Amusement and Recreation, 95.
  4. ^ Alnutt, African-American Amusement and Recreation, 132.
  5. ^ J.H. Gray "Gibson's Standard Theatre" The Freeman (Indianapolis: 10/09/1915)
  6. ^ J.H. Gray "Gibson's Standard Theatre" The Freeman (Indianapolis: 01/31/1914)
  7. ^ J.H. Gray "Gibson's Standard Theatre" The Freeman (Indianapolis: 05/23/1914)
  8. ^ J.H. Gray "Gibson's Standard Theatre" The Freeman (Indianapolis: 02/06/1915)
  9. ^ J.H. Gray "Gibson's Standard Theatre" The Freeman (Indianapolis: 08/14/1915)
  10. ^ J.H. Gray "Gibson's Standard Theatre" The Freeman (Indianapolis: 11/06/1915)
  11. ^ J.H. Gray "Gibson's Standard Theatre" The Freeman (Indianapolis: 04/22/1916)
  12. ^ "John T. Gibson, "The Richest Colored Man in Pennsylvania" The Washington Bee (D.C.: 06/06/1918)
  13. ^ Matthew J. Countryman, "Why Philadelphia?" Civil Rights in a Northern City: Philadelphia,
  14. ^ "Standard Theatre Historical Marker," Explore PA History, last modified 2011,
  15. ^ Russell L. Johnson, "'Disease Is Unrhythmical': Jazz, Health, and Disability in 1920s America," Health and History 13, no. 2 (2011): 29.
  16. ^ Alnutt, African-American Amusement and Recreation, 255.
  17. ^ Mark Tucker, The Duke Ellington Reader (Oxford: University of Oxford Press, 1993), 241.
  18. ^ James Lincoln Collier, Louis Armstrong: An American Genius (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 218.
  19. ^ "Standard Theatre Historical Marker," Explore PA History, last modified 2011,
  20. ^ Ethel Waters, "His Eye is on the Sparrow: An Autobiography" (De Capo Press, 1992), 107.
  21. ^ Alnutt, "African-American Amusement and Recreation," 253.
  22. ^ "The Whitman Sisters," American Vaudeville Museum, last modified 2011,
  23. ^ Clyde E. B. Bernhardt, I Remember: Eighty Years of Black Entertainment, Big Bands, and the Blues: An Autobiography, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986), 42.


  • Alnutt, Brian E. "African-American Amusement and Recreation in Philadelphia, 1876-1926." PhD diss., Lehigh University, 2003.
  • Bernhardt, Clyde E. B. I Remember: Eighty Years of Black Entertainment, Big Bands, and the Blues: An Autobiography. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986.
  • Collier, James Lincoln. Louis Armstrong: An American Genius. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.
  • Countryman, Matthew J. "Why Philadelphia?" Civil Rights in a Northern City: Philadelphia.
  • Gray, J.H. "Gibson's Standard Theatre." The Freeman, Indianapolis.
  • Johnson, Russell L. "'Disease Is Unrhythmical': Jazz, Health, and Disability in 1920s America," Health and History 13, no. 2 (2011): 13-42.
  • "John T. Gibson, The Richest Colored Man in Pennsylvania" The Washington Bee (D.C.: 06/06/1918)
  • "Standard Theatre Historical Marker," Explore PA History, last modified 2011,
  • Tucker, Mark. The Duke Ellington Reader. Oxford: University of Oxford Press, 1993.
  • Waters, Ethel. His Eye is on the Sparrow: An Autobiography. De Capo Press, 1992.
  • "The Whitman Sisters," American Vaudeville Museum, last modified 2011,

Coordinates: 39°56′35″N 75°09′39″W / 39.9430°N 75.1608°W / 39.9430; -75.1608