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Uptown Correspondent – Iman R. Abdulfattah – Odeon Theatre – 145th Street – Harlem, NYC

© Iman R. Abdulfattah

© Iman R. Abdulfattah

© Iman R. Abdulfattah

In an interview with Harlemite and Manhattan borough historian Celedonia “Cal” Jones, he said he remembered sneaking into the Odeon in the late 1930s to watch movies as a child. Cal, who lived two or three blocks north of the Odeon, said, “When you go shopping for theatres to sneak into, you perfected your talents on the local theatres. We had it down pretty pat.” Cal recounted, “One of us snuck in and he’d come around and crack the door and the rest of us would crawl upstairs.” Sometimes he would “back into the theatre,” which is the remarkable talent of walking backward while people were exiting. Cal also remembers that the Odeon sets of jelly glasses to the first hundred paying customers who got in the theatre or some other kind of promotional gift. Usually the Odeon showed a double feature but not first-run films. “After it hit downtown, it would work its way uptown, so for the area, they were first runs.” Cal’s buddy Sonny Neal remembered the newsreels between the films. Sonny said they would show the black newsreels after the general newsreels, like the clips about the all-black troops during World War II. Cal remembers he had heard the theatre once had live vaudeville performances, but by the time he was “coming up” in Harlem, during its renaissance, the Odeon was a straight movie house.

In a letter written by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Committee to restore the Apollo Theatre (formerly known as the Hurtig & Seaman’s New Burlesque Theatre), the following information about the Odeon Theatre was provided:

Brecher and Schiffman were white businessmen who played a major role in the history of Harlem’s entertainment industry as owner-operators of a number of Harlem’s leading theatres featuring black entertainers. Brecher was owner of several Broadway and Harlem clubs and theatres, while Schiffman was a theatre operator and motion picture distributor. They first became business partners in 1920, converting the Odeon Theatre (1910, Van Buren & Lavelle, 256 West 145th Street) to show motion pictures.

Many of the old theatres and movie houses had elaborate organs that were played in between vaudeville acts or during films, which up to then were still silent films. There is an interesting connection between the owners of the Odeon and a young jazz organist by the name of Thomas Waller. While reading some selected passages from the book Black and Blue: The Life and Lyrics of Andy Razaf by Barry Singer, required reading for a course at the Center for the Humanities at Washington University at St. Louis about the American poet and jazz lyricist Andy Razaf, I was happy to discover that his musical partner, twenty year- old Thomas “Fats” Waller, was employed by Brecher and Schiffman.

Wildly unsuited to a wife who’d finally divorced her unreliable musician-husband in late 1923, and still sorely missing his late mother, young Waller reveled in the camaraderie of musicians, loving to jam with them, loving to drink with them. The orchestra rows surrounding his organ post at the Lincoln Theatre often were filled with musician friends drinking in Waller’s astonishing keyboard talent, passing the bottle, laughing with him as he often provided outrageous musical accompaniment to the action onscreen. Willie “the Lion” Smith would later suggest that Waller’s unsuspected, painful shyness was the cause of his early alcoholism. Everyone, including young Waller, loved the person he became boozed up. The drinking escalated rapidly.

In March 1925 Marie Downes, owner of the Lincoln Theatre, informed her organist that she had decided to sell the old film house to Frank Schiffman and his partner Leo Brecher—two white men, operators of the Odeon Theatre on 145th Street and both the Harlem Opera House and Loew’s Seventh Avenue burlesque theatre on 124th Street, who were about to attempt an ambitious consolidation of black vaudeville entertainment in Harlem.

The news stung Waller, who viewed the Lincoln in much the same light as he did the revered memory of his late mother. Schiffman and Brecher, however, cordially brought the young keyboardist up to their offices, where they openly informed him of their plans to turn the Lincoln into a straight movie house while transferring the old theatre’s successful vaudeville programming to the larger Lafayette, which, after undergoing continual policy reconfigurations over the previous few years, was for the moment a straight movie house presenting only sporadic stage shows. The two men then offered Waller the Lafayette organist’s job for $50 a week (double his Lincoln Theatre salary), crowning the news with the information that if he accepted, Waller could expect to play a Robert Marston–model organ at the Lafayette, the first grand organ to be found in Harlem.

Excerpt from The Fading Ads of New York City (History Press, 2011) © Frank H. Jump