Located in downtown Athens, the Morton Theatre was the first vaudeville theater in the United States that was built, owned, and operated by an African American.
The successful businessman and politician
Originally built to seat 550, the Morton boasts a balcony forming a full horseshoe with tiered risers, pagoda-style boxes, and seating for about 300 on the orchestra floor. Wired for electricity at the time of its construction, the theater also retains its original gas-lighting outlets.
The blues performers soon followed, including Cab Calloway and the Cotton Club's Butterbeans and Susie Review. Based on ticket stubs found later during renovation of the theater, it is believed that Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, and Duke Ellington also performed there.
In the 1930s Morton's son, Charlie, turned the theater into a movie house. It remained an important meeting hall for the African American community. Following a fire in the projection room in the 1950s, the fire marshal closed it down after discovering only one wooden stairway exit for the entire theater.
The Morton family Clarke County, with the architect J. W. Robinson leading the historic preservation of the Morton. The following year the theater officially reopened as a community performing arts center.
Originally the center of the thriving black business district, the Morton is one of the few surviving buildings still serving its original purpose and one of only four black vaudeville theaters that still exist in the United States. Before the Morton was renovated, the B-52's used part of the building as rehearsal space for a time. R.E.M. filmed a music video for the song "The One I Love" in the renovated theater. The Morton Heritage Players present contemporary American theater productions throughout the year, as do the Athens Creative Theatre, the Black Theatrical Ensemble, and the Town and Gown Players.