Integrating the city's theaters


Sixty years ago, the effort began to break racial barriers on stage and in the audience

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Ever since the curtain went up Oct. 2, 1871, on its first production -- Shakespeare's As You Like It, starring James W. Wallack -- Ford's Theater came to symbolize the legitimate stage for generations of Baltimore theatergoers.

But from the time of its founding, Ford's meant something else to African-Americans who were excluded from purchasing orchestra or box seats and banished to the theater's second balcony.

On Feb. 17, 1946 -- 60 years ago yesterday -- the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People began picketing against the now-demolished Fayette Street theater's discriminatory seating policy.

"Segregation is wrong," Juanita Jackson Mitchell, civil rights leader and member of the NAACP theater discrimination committee, said in an interview with the Afro-American newspaper. "It remains wrong, whether it is aided and abetted by colored people or whether it is fostered by white people."

The movement was beginning to spread.

In 1947, Ingrid Bergman, who was starring at the National Theater in Washington in a production of George Bernard Shaw's St. Joan, refused to go on stage because the theater had a similar discriminatory seating policy, which was being challenged by NAACP pickets from the Washington chapter.

A. Robert Kaufman, the Baltimore activist, was a 10th-grader at Park School when he attended a meeting of Fellowship House in 1947. A classmate, Larry Atkins, asked him to join the picket line at Ford's for the coming Saturday afternoon matinee.

"I had kind of forgotten about it. And then Larry asked, `Are you going to picket tomorrow?' I was from a middle-class Jewish family who would never consider such a thing, but it was the right thing to do. So I shined my shoes, put on a tie and my best suit, and went downtown," Kaufman, now 74, recalled in an interview yesterday.

For the next three years, Kaufman walked the picket line every Saturday, some times alone or accompanied by his friend, Adah Jenkins, a piano teacher and Afro-American music critic, or Don Altwood, director of Fellowship House. Sometimes he was joined on the line by celebrities like Paul Robeson and members of the Mitchell family.

"My classmates and their parents would cross the line, and I'd give them the evil eye. Of course, this didn't make life too easy for me back at school," he said.

"It was my idea to contact Lawrence Langer of the Theater Guild in New York. I'd go into the school library and look at The New York Times to see what new shows might be coming to Baltimore. And then we'd write letters that Adah typed and sent to producers explaining the situation here," he said.

"Letters supporting us came from Jose Ferrer, who was playing in Cyrano de Bergerac, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein," Kaufman said. "When Charles Boyer came to Ford's to play in Red Gloves, he called me at home. He told me he couldn't break his contract but would never have played Ford's or any other theater that had a segregated policy."

In May 1949, owners of the Maryland Theater on Franklin Street abandoned their Jim Crow policy, but even though the Afro-American reported "no inter-racial incidents among colored audiences," they reverted to their former discriminatory seating practice four months later.

The policy led to a demonstration by several cast members of At War With the Army, who set up a picket line.

"We can't quit now. The walls of segregation are beginning to crack," Juanita Jackson Mitchell urged supporters in an interview with the Afro-American.

Ford's Theater, which was operated by United Booking Office Inc. of New York, leased the building from Morris Mechanic, the Baltimore theater mogul.

By 1950, United Booking Office reported that Ford's, once one of the most prosperous theaters in the nation, had its box office receipts cut almost in half. This could be attributed both to the NAACP protest and to the poor selection of plays that had been sent to Baltimore.

"By the last year of the protest, they were down to three plays, and we couldn't get The Sun, Evening Sun or the News-American to cover the story," Kaufman recalled.

Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin, speaking in early 1952 at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, declared that he wanted Ford's opened to blacks because they had been "needlessly affronted" by its policies.

"We are going to walk together," he said. "I am an optimist, and we must win. We are going to stop this evil thing."

He also pointed out the "absurdity of practices under which the Lyric, another Baltimore theater dedicated to live performances, banned Negro actors from its stage," reported The Sun, while Ford's accepted black actors but, like the Lyric, made black audiences sit apart.

On Feb. 1, 1952, Ford's dropped its policy of segregation.

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