“Did you know,” asked the Tribune’s Joe Rainey in July 1931, “that never in the history of theatricals has one playhouse presented to the amusement lover as many stars as the Pearl Theatre…in the past six months?”
“A vaudeville and picture house” at 21st Street and Ridge Avenue, the Pearl opened Thanksgiving Day, 1927. First up was Lottie Gee, “the scintillating star of ‘Chocolate Dandies,’ ‘Running Wild’ and ‘Shuffle Along.’” Edith Spencer performed her “clever, original and unique song and dance numbers.” The audience enjoyed Sheldon Brooks, the Okeh recording artist, as well as the Taskiana Four, “melodic harmonizers without peers.” Don Heywood and his New York Syncopators, were joined by Beano, “The Dancing Phool” and finally Watts and Ringold provided a comic finale before the “feature picture,” Tom Mix and his horse Tony in “Silver Valley.”
“Come end enjoy vaudeville and photoplays at their best,” promised the promotions. “Watch our shows each week grow bigger and greater. Nothing in the history of amusements in Philadelphia has even equaled our effort for novelty, variety, comedy, ensemble, beauty and importance.”
The Pearl paired up Wilbur Sweatman, “The Colored King of Jazz with “The Loves of Carmen” starring Delores Del Rio. Soon after came Clara Bow in her Paramount production, “Hula,” directed by Victor Fleming. But not before a live feature with heavyweight pugilist George Godfrey, “The Black Shadow” and Wilbur De Paris with his band.
A seat in the orchestra? Fifty cents in the evening, thirty cents for a matinee. Balcony seats? Thirty five cents in the evening, twenty cents for a matinee.
“Meet your family, your girl or boy friend but do not stand outside or in the lobby. Meet them where you will be comfortable while waiting in our Salon on our Mezzanine Floor.” The ushers—and the Pearl’s want ads said only “light colored” and “good looking” applicants need apply—would welcome you.
“One of the greatest dispensers of rhythm in the land today,” Cab Calloway, stood for a long run, from January to July, 1931. “Night after night, millionaires have been seen rubbing elbows with the colored patrons…when their desires have carried them to this uptown house to see the paramount colored performers of the land under the spotlight. Many have driven from sixty to one hundred miles to see some of the sable actors and actresses who have made history for themselves…”
“Colored people didn’t have to go to a white house to see a stellar attraction.” Instead, “whites had to come to a colored house”—and according the Tribune, “it looked as if they liked it.”
“All races and classes have apparently been willing to form lines sometimes two blocks long just to gain entrance and see the ‘Duke,’ the ‘Cab,’ (and) the ‘Bojangles.” Ethel Waters, Bennie Moten and his band, Nina Mae McKinney (the star of “Hallelujah”) and Earl (Snakehips) Tucker who had recently headlined at the Lincoln downtown at Broad and Lombard. Audiences applauded George Dewey Washington, Eddie Green, Tim Moore, Chick Webb, Miller and Lyles and Butterbeans and Susie.
The 1,400-seat Pearl and the other Ridge Avenue Jazz emporiums are all gone. But there’s no stopping memory. On Saturday May 6th, Jazz history advocate Faye Anderson will lead a “Ridge Avenue Stroll Through Philly’s Jazz History” starting at the site of the Blue Note at 15th and Ridge. You’ll spot her holding a sign proclaiming “This Place Matters.”
The 13-stop stroll, organized by PlanPhilly as part of their Jane’s Walk series, will visit and recall the entire set of star-struck sites, from the Nite Cap, the Bird Cage Lounge, Butler’s Paradise Café, Ridge Cotton Club, Checker Café, Mr. Chips Bar, Irene’s Café, and, of course, the Pearl on Ridge.
[Sources: Irvin R. Glazer, Philadelphia Theatres, A-Z (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986); The Philadelphia Tribune: “Joe Wood to Manage New Pearl Theatre.” Nov 17, 1927; “Want Ad, November 18, 1927; “Lottie Gee, Edith Spencer and Sheldon Brooks Open The Pearl,” November 24, 1927; “New Million Dollar Colored Theatre,” (Advertisement) December 5, 1927; “The Pearl Theatre,” December 8, 1927; “Snappy Show At Pearl,” December 20, 1927; “Where to Go and What to See,” May 14, 1931; “Theatres: Did You Know That?,” by Joe Rainey, July 2, 1931; and “Jules Bledsoe at Pearl,” May 10, 1932.]