By Matt Bennett
Over half a century old, The Lincoln Theater complex previously provided African Americans in Baton Rouge with a barbershop, a pharmacy, a soda fountain, an entertainment venue and more. However, after shutting down some years ago, the once lively landmark on the corner of Myrtle Street and Eddie Robinson Sr. Drive has since looked lifeless. With plywood for windows and a noticeable hole in the center of the marquee, the venue needed help. Now, under the ownership of the Louisiana Black History Hall Of Fame, and with the support of numerous community partners, it will finally receive the necessary renovations and reopen its doors, hopefully, as early as June of 2016.
Listed on The National Register of Historic Places, The Lincoln Theater has hosted a multitude of legendary entertainers and Civil Rights activists since it started welcoming patrons in the 1950s. Renowned artists like Louis Armstrong, James Brown and Otis Redding performed in the auditorium and even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. probably visited the site in the early 1950s for a meeting with Baton Rouge Bus Boycott community strategists, including Reverend T.J. Jemison.
“The 1953 Bus Boycott legal team which is called The United Defense League, had their offices on the second floor,” said Louisiana Black History Hall Of Fame founder and Lincoln Theater Restoration Project Director Brenda Perry. “So some of their meetings, legal strategy meetings, were held at the Lincoln Theater along with voter registration planning meetings.”
Despite being such a pivotal monument of culture, entertainment and heritage, in the 1980s, the historic theater closed for repairs and did not reopen until the early 2000s, only to shut down again in 2007. Already in the second phase of renovations, The Lincoln Theater has undergone vast improvements.
“A whole new roof has been designed and constructed,” said Perry. “The environmental cleanup project—where we removed all the asbestos, old lead paint, mold, mildew and all of the things that could harm anyone—that project took about five months to do and we completed that.”
Being a challenging and certainly costly undertaking, The Lincoln Theater also started a fundraiser called the “Name Your Seat Campaign.” Here, supporters can have their name or whatever brief message they would like, engraved on the theater’s newly refurbished seats. Prices range from $200 for balcony chairs to $2,500 Lincoln Legends front row center seats, along with several other options in between.
Certainly more than just a theater, the completed project will also include a performing arts program, a 1953 Baton Rouge Bus Boycott exhibition and a space for local small businesses on the second floor. Property directly down the street from the theater will hopefully become a peace park and a musician’s plaza as well.
“Our Mission is to educate and inspire achievements,” said Perry. “The Lincoln Theater is one of the landmarks of South Baton Rouge; it’s supposed to stand tall and tell a story. So that’s why we want to revitalize it, get it back beautiful so that we can reopen it again so even more future generations can continue telling a story.”
For more information please visit lincolntheaterbr.com.