Fort Worth was always racially segregated, but the lines became hard and fast with the arrival of Jim Crow practices toward the end of the 19th century.
For instance, there was a Black Elephant Saloon for those who were not allowed inside the White Elephant Saloon. Aside from the similarity in name, it was so beneath contempt it was not even listed in city directories.
The racial line was drawn at all public venues, including theaters. In 1911, a riot erupted at the Dixie Theater on lower Main after management decided to sell tickets to any and all regardless of color. On Feb. 27, 1911, some citizens took exception to the new policy and gathered in front of the theater. After breaking the windows and sending the employees running for their lives, they turned their anger on the black neighborhood centered on East Ninth Street, rampaging for hours. The police did not interfere.
In 1924, a new theater opened at Tenth and Commerce under the venerable “Ritz” name. Constructed at a cost of $150,000 raised in a public bond offering, it was considered the “most modern show house with every comfort and convenience, including a pipe organ.”
It catered to white audiences only, seating 1,558, which made it the largest theater in Fort Worth for several years. The only black person on the premises was Henry Bragg, the “negro porter.” Bragg was severely burned in a boiler-room explosion two months after the grand opening. Damage to the building was slight, and the show was resumed an hour and a half later. Bragg was not so fortunate since he had no insurance, and the theater did not provide employee insurance. Two years later, and under new management, it changed names to the Pantages Theater.
In 1930, the place underwent another name change, becoming the New Liberty Theater, concentrating on movies. It slowly slid downhill until it became a Rescue Mission in the 1950s, the predecessor of Goat Island rehab center on Lake Worth. In 1964, the building was torn down as part of the redevelopment of the south end of town as the Convention Center.
The “Ritz” name was briefly appropriated for the Chamber of Commerce auditorium in 1926 before again falling into disuse. It was revived in 1940 for a black movie house at 911 Calhoun. This was the heart of Fort Worth’s black business district. Next door at 915 Calhoun was the Gilton Building, named for owner Robert Gilton, an African-American dentist.
While white audiences went to one of the premier theaters on Seventh Street, the Hollywood, Worth, or Palace, where they could see first-run motion pictures like “Gone with the Wind,” black audiences went to the Ritz Theater to see black films like “Marching On,” “Hi De Ho,” and “Stormy Weather.”
If white kids didn’t want to go to one of the big three movie palaces, they could go to one of the neighborhood theaters like the Tower, Parkway, or Isis. Black Fort Worthers had no such choices.
The Calhoun Street Ritz didn’t advertise in either of the city’s two dailies. It stuck to the Como newspaper and otherwise depended on word of mouth. The second Ritz closed in 1968 but reopened in the next couple of years as the XXX-rated Finne [sic] Arts Theater, which only lasted a short time.
Unofficially, black movie patrons could sit upstairs at the Hollywood, Worth, Palace, and Majestic theaters, but they were not really welcome. The Majestic at Tenth and Commerce was so down-at-the-heels by 1958 that management rented out the entire theater for the appearance of Martin Luther King, Jr. (his only visit to Fort Worth).
By the mid-1970s, all the downtown theaters were closed. Ironically, the last to close, the Hollywood, in its final years hung on by catering to black audiences, showing such “blaxploitation” films as “Blacula,” “Super Fly,” and “Foxy Brown.”
Author-historian Richard Selcer is a Fort Worth native and proud graduate of Paschal High and TCU.