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The Rolland J. Curtis Photo Archive at the Los Angeles Public Library Central Branch

Month

December 2015

The Ebony Showcase Theater

One of the most successful and time consuming bits of research I’ve done on this project was on an African American theater company called the Ebony Showcase Theater. Nick and Edna Stewart began the Ebony Showcase Theater in 1950. Nick had spent his career playing stereotypical African American roles: a waiter, a porter, an elevator boy, and even a janitor, when the radio show Amos ‘n’ Andy moved to television on CBS. With a background in vaudeville, Nick Stewart found himself cast as the dim-witted, shuffling, ironically named Lightnin’, in a TV show about blacks, but had been voiced for years on the radio by white actors.

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(Left to Right) Edna Stewart, Jayne Meadows, Steve Allen and Nick Stewart chat after the Stewarts received a resolution for their work at the Ebony Showcase Theater.

Understanding the need for African American actors to find a creative output, and meaningful roles, Stewart recalled: “I was Lightnin’ by day, but I put on serious black theater by night…for positive portrayals of African Americans and longevity in the theater.” Stewart also used salvaged lumber from the CBS television construction site to remodel the first theater. The Ebony Showcase Theater was the first African American owned and operated theater for African Americans in Los Angeles.

It was shut down in 1996 and razed to build the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center known as the Ebony Repertoire Theater, a move that angered the Stewarts who had lost the theater years before due to costly building seismic code requirements and the use of eminent domain by the Community Redevelopment Agency. The family had spent years trying to raise the money to save the theater from foreclosure, losing 2 homes in the process. The situation was exacerbated by the plan to call the new performing arts center the Ebony Showcase Theater, a move blocked by the Stewarts. Nick Stewart himself arrived in a wheelchair to protest the groundbreaking of the new theater by holding a sign with the words “Ebony Rip-off.”

Rolland Curtis took photographs of the theater during a visit by Billy G. Mills and Gilbert Lindsay. Curtis not only took publicity photos of the actors with the councilmen, he also photographed their performances and took formal portraits of the actors, all taking place during the same day. In order to identify the actors, and provide a date for the photos, it was important to determine the names of the productions.

Perhaps it was not the most sophisticated way to search the newspapers, but I decided to comb the Theater section of the LA Times every month, looking at the names of productions at the Ebony Showcase Theater from 1963 to 1970. It was quite time consuming, but it yielded the desired result; I had a list of the different productions at the theater, a history of everything that played. I then searched for reviews using the name of the productions. I found one in 1967 matching pictures Curtis took. After a bit of searching on the internet, I found a description of the play:  http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/maai3/protest/text12/warddayofabsence.pdf.

The summary, description, even the makeup and costumes, were exactly as described in Curtis’ photos. I also searched for photos of the actors billed in the article, double checking to make sure they matched up with Curtis’ photos and finally putting names to the actor’s faces.

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Booker Bradshaw and Isabel Sanford.
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Morris Erby as the Mayor.

After matching such a distinctive play, I managed to narrow down the year and matched up the other 2 productions in Curtis’ pictures.

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Booker Bradshaw, Juanita Moore and Isabel Sanford in Happy Ending.
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Joseph Washington and Laurine Nevels in Lost in Stars.

All of the productions took place in 1967. Here are some of the portraits that Curtis took the same day.

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Here is a photo of Billy G. Mills with actors from Day of Absence. 

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Morris Erby, Isabel Sanford and Juanita Moore with Billy G. Mills at the Ebony Showcase Theater.

Curtis also took a great picture of John Amos, with Nick and Edna Stewart and the rest of the Ebony Showcase players, during the Watts Summer Festival in 1971. Perhaps best known for his role as James Evans Sr. in the TV show Good Times, Amos celebrated his 76th birthday a few days ago. Amos was in a production of Norman is that you? The production was a Broadway flop that the Ebony Showcase Theater recast with black actors. The production became a hit that ran at the theater for seven years.

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References:

Oliver, Myrna. “Nick Stewart; Co-Founded Ebony Theater to Help Black Actors.” Los Angeles Times. December 21, 2000. Accessed December 28, 2015. http://articles.latimes.com/2000/dec/21/local/me-2834.

Shirley, Don. “Ebony Showcase Looks to ‘Norman’ to Bail It Out.” Los Angeles Times. April 14, 1991. Accessed December 28, 2015. http://articles.latimes.com/1991-04-14/entertainment/ca-67_1_ebony-showcase-theatre.

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This is one of my favorite pictures by Curtis, but it won’t be featured in my exhibit in January. Luckily, it is currently on display at the LAPL Central Branch Getty Gallery until Friday, January 29th, 2016, as part of a different exhibit called: Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and the March on Washington, 1963. Half of the photos for this exhibit are from the Shades of LA Collection, and the other half is from the Curtis collection. It features a completely different set of photographs from the actual Curtis exhibit opening in January, showcasing life in the African American community, instead of a specific focus on black leaders.

Here is a link for more information about the Changing America exhibit:  http://www.lapl.org/whats-on/exhibits/changingamerica

Freeing Angela Davis

Current total count: 17,040 photographs and negatives processed.

It’s been a very hectic few months , which is why there hasn’t been a blog post in quite a while. October was spent finishing up the initial processing of the majority of the collection. I had my birthday in November, along with Thanksgiving and my graduation from UBC, so I was gone for several weeks. I’ve processed nearly the entire collection, which is currently numbered at 17, 040 photos and negatives. There are a few hundred still unprocessed, orphans which may belong to other series or by themselves. I’m in the process of cleaning up the arrangement and still hold out hope that I can reunite a few to their original events. Currently, my desk has been overrun by the orphan photos, spread out in a gigantic game of memory.

 

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I’m also halfway done with the work for the Curtis Exhibit, which will be unveiled in January 2016 at the History and Genealogy Department at the Central Branch of the LAPL. Photos and captions are almost complete, with an exhibit book in progress.

I thought this would be a great time to talk about the photos I managed to identify a few months ago regarding Angela Davis. Angela Davis was hired as an assistant professor for the Philosophy Department at UCLA. Davis was an activist, radical feminist, a member of the Communist Party, with ties to the Black Panther party. Months after she was hired, under the urging of Governor Ronald Reagan, Davis was fired by the Board of Regents at UCLA, mainly because of her membership in the Communist Party.

When her position was reinstated, largely because a judge ruled that the Regents could not fire her based solely on her political affiliations, the Regents released her again in 1970, firing her this time for language she used in her speeches at school.

It was around this time that the Soledad Brothers’ trial began. The Soledad Brothers were 3 African American men who had been accused of killing a prison guard at Soledad Prison. During their trial in 1970, an African American high school student named Jonathan Jackson held the courtroom hostage. Jackson was heavily armed, and while attempting to escape with the one of the defendants and hostages, the police opened fire on their vehicle, killing Jackson, the defendant and Superior Court Judge Harold Haley, who had been one of the hostages. Angela Davis had purchased the firearms used by Jackson days earlier and had been corresponding with one of the inmates. Based on this evidence, she was charged with aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder in the death of Judge Harold Haley.

The subsequent manhunt for Angela Davis, which began on August 14, 1970, earned her a place on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitive list. Davis fled California, staying at friend’s homes and moving from place to place regularly. On October 13, 1970, FBI agents found her at a motor lodge in New York City, earning the praise of President Nixon on the “capture of the dangerous terrorist, Angela Davis.”

In the months she spent in jail before her trial, the “Free Angela Davis” movement grew and was in full force. Songs were written,  committees were started, in the United States and throughout the world, all with the goal of freeing Angela Davis. Bail and portions of her legal defense were paid for by churches and local businessmen. When a TWA flight was hijacked in 1972, one of the demands was the release of Angela Davis.

Which brings us to our mystery pictures:

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You’ll have to excuse the quality of the pictures. I used the app on my phone to create positives from the negatives. It began with the picture of Billy Mills with the woman in glasses. This photo was part of the group indexed under Mills, Billy. The woman was unidentified. I couldn’t even read her pin. At the time, nothing else in the picture indicated the event, so I put the photo aside to identify later.

I then stumbled upon these pictures, which were indexed under Operation Breadbasket.

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This was obviously a rally to free Angela Davis by Operation Breadbasket. It had been filed with all of the other Operation Breadbasket pictures. However, I recognized the woman Rev. H. H. Brookins was shaking hands with. With the help of my trusty jewelry loupe, I was able to read the award and identify the woman as Sallye Davis, the mother of Angela Davis, who had attended the Operation Breadbasket meeting.

It struck me as strange that the meeting seemed to be outdoors. All of the Operation Breadbasket meetings were indoors, at least in the pictures. I did a bit of digging and found an article in the Los Angeles Sentinel talking about the meeting.

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She’s even wearing the same outfit in the picture! Hair, necklace, glasses, pin and everything! It turns out that the meeting began at Elks Hall, where Operation Breadbasket normally had meetings. However, in the middle of his speech, Reverend Jesse Boyd had been told that there was a bomb threat placed on the building. The building was evacuated, with hundreds of newly evacuated people milling around in the parking lot. Rev. Boyd and Rev. Brookins stood on a car bumper and called the people to order. A table was brought out and became a speakers platform, on which Rev. Boyd, Rev. Brookins and Sallye Davis stood for the rest of the meeting. Rolland Curtis was there to capture the entire event.

The police continued to search the building but found no bombs at Elks Hall. Davis was acquitted of all charges in June of 1972, by an all-white jury. The remaining Soledad Brothers were acquitted of all charges in March of 1972.

 

References:

Cleaver, Jim. 1971. “Angela’s Mother Speaks Despite Threat of Bomb.” Los Angeles Sentinel (1934-2005), Jul 15, 2. http://ezproxy.lapl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/564989128?accountid=6749.

 

 

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