The Classic Theater: A forerunner in Dayton’s Black entertainment scene from 1927 to the 1950s

Over the years, Dayton has had several unique and interesting theaters. Many of them are no longer around today.

The Classic theater, which opened at 817 W. Fifth St. in 1927, is one of them.

The Classic Theater is believed to be the first Black-built, Black-operated and Black-owned theater in the United States.

The owners

Carl Anderson and Goodrich Giles built the theater in response to racism at other downtown theaters.

During the final phases of construction, Giles died. His widow, Geraldine Giles, took over his interests.

The slogan the owners adopted was “It’s Your Theater.”

Of the building, Anderson said, “In fact, we have allowed nothing to escape our ambition to have a picture house that will be outstanding.”

Construction and design

Giles and Anderson spent more than $175,000 to build the Classic.

The movie theater held 500 people on the main floor and 100 in the balcony. The upstairs ballroom also accommodated 600 people.

The projectors were state-of-the-art. They were used with an electrical generator designed to eliminate all flicker from the screen.

The owners installed a massive Wurlitzer organ for $17,500. It’s ivory console was said to be the only one of its kind in Dayton.

The place to be

The owners of the Classic were committed to showing first-run movies, no matter the cost, and it was a success.

Performers in the upstairs ballroom included Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, The Mills Brothers and Count Basie.

A Dayton Daily News article at the time of the opening said: “They have spared neither time nor money” to make the theater a success.

A 1927 Dayton Daily News article described it, saying, “The furnishings are of the highest class from the magnificent lobby with the finest of marble walls and marble floors with rubber mats; the elegantly carpeted foyer, passing 11 splendidly arranged boxes on down to the magnificent $17,500 Wurlitzer pipe organ. All brilliant under subdued lights makes this a structure of class, and a more fitting name could not have been found than that with which it has been christened.”

One of the main unique features of the ballroom was its “floating floor.” Designed like the only other one of its kind, at the Music Box in Cleveland, the floor was a foundation of concrete, then a layer of felt, then a layer of sheet iron, then more felt. On top of that was the sub-floor and the finished floor, all of which gave “a buoyancy that does not easily tire the dancer.”

In decline

For 32 years (1927-59) it was theater for Black residents in Dayton.

The theater closed in 1959, in part due to the impact of television and in part due to the construction of Interstate 75 that left the area isolated from downtown.

In 1975, the Classic was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, even though it was only 49 years old at the time.

Over time, water damage had destroyed much of the building but the façade was still in decent shape. There had been a hole in the roof for much of the 1980s.

Still, there were attempts to restore and renovate the Classic as a cultural center and museum.

The City of Dayton purchased the theater in 1978. The cost to renovate and restore the theater were much higher than estimated and fell through.

Despite ongoing efforts to save the building, the Classic was demolished in 1991.

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