The grand opening of the Renaissance Theater on Seventh Avenue between 137th and 138th Streets was on January 15, 1921.
Many people — even locals — are not aware that the old Renaissance Ballroom complex at the corner of West 138th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem, began as just a “theatre.”
This event was an important breakthrough. To put it in perspective, you have to realize that prior to the Renaissance Theatre, black people weren’t permitted to sit in the orchestra of most movie houses even in their own community of Harlem.
While whites sat below, patrons of African descent had to use the balcony, a practice so common that this elevated seating area became known as “Nigger Heaven,” a term later used by Caucasian author and famous Harlem Renaissance socialite Carl Van Vechten, as the title of his bestselling book.
Though the book was a hit, it was controversial — praised by some black literati like Langston Hughes and criticized by others like Alain Locke.
Times are different now, of course, but when you look at the wording on this advertisement, you’ve gotta love the enthusiasm and the positive vision of the future.
Most astonishing, the owners named their theater the “Renaissance” before there was even any such thing as the term “Harlem Renaissance”!
This Theatre is the first and only Theatre in the City of New York that has been built by Colored capital and is owned and managed by Colored people.
It should be your immediate duty to see for yourself what everybody admits to be the best and finest built Theatre in the Colored section of Harlem — with beautiful interior decorations and with a magnificent orchestra headed by Miss Maria Wayne — This Theatre should appeal to your sense of racial pride.
THE POLICY will be to feature the best and latest photo reproductions, as is shown in the first class Broadway Theatres, with an orchestra of exceptional ability.
All productions as are shown in this Theatre are selected to meet the requirements of the refined and cultured class. Everything will be done to maintain a standard of excellency in catering to the public at popular prices — 11¢, 17¢, 20¢.