Excerpts from "the first rough draft of history" as reported in
The Washington Post on this date in the 20th century.
Rather than admit blacks, the National Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue shut its doors in 1948, reopening later as a poorly attended -- and still segregated -- movie theater. But after four years, it again became a live theater, presenting Ethel Merman in "Call Me Madam." This time, blacks were admitted. An excerpt from The Post of August 1, 1948:
By N.S. Haseltine
The National Theater last night rang down the curtain on "Oklahoma!" and on legitimate theater life in Washington. The theater will reopen, its manager said, in mid-September as a motion picture house, maintaining its policy of excluding Negroes from its seats. The policy admittedly cost the 112-year-old center of Washington stage history its life.
Every one of the National's 1680 seats were sold for the final performance of the hit musical comedy, but that in itself was not unusual. The National has been playing to capacity and near capacity houses steadily as the only theater here offering Broadway productions. ...
Last night's closing of the National was the answer of Marcus Heiman, president of the corporation operating the theater, to what he considered an ultimatum from Actors Equity Association that its members won't appear on the National's stage if Negroes are barred from the performances.
Manager Edmund Plohn ... received "condolences" of many of the theater patrons as he stood by at intermission time and at the show's end. To many, he said, glumly:
"The issue is too big for just one theater to solve. The issue is too big, too big."
Mrs. Ethel G. Cliffe of 6909 Woodland ave., Takoma Park, Md., who confessed she "hasn't missed a show here in 24 years," walked out shaking her head.
"I think this is awful, something awful," she said, railing at Actors Equity and blaming them for the closing. ...
For 18 months, the National fought the race issue, sporadic picketing, suits for ticket refunds and a court action for refusal to admit a Negro. Heiman, wealthy New York operator of a chain of playhouses, steadfastly refused to lower the color bar "until the general segregation policy is changed in Washington by law or unless business or civic groups revoke (their) restrictions."
Actors Equity, at a meeting in New York early this year, voted to boycott the National Theater because of the segregation rule ...
"I didn't want to desert the legitimate theater," Heiman said. "But now the legitimate theater is deserting me." ...
Heiman took over the National in 1937, a depression finale year that had cut so heavily into theater operations throughout the country. But the theater itself dates back to its opening on December 7, 1835 ...
Many of the stage's greatest names appeared at the National. The Barrymores, John Drew, Frizi Scheff, Sarah Bernhardt, Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, Mme. Mojeska, Edwin Forrest-all trod its stage, and were applauded by Presidents, Ambassadors, Chinese and Hindu potentates. The color ban was only known on Negroes.