Lincoln Theatre is one of Raleigh's most established music venues featuring top acts from around the world. Built in 1939, the theatre served originally as a movie theatre that catered primarily to the African-American community during segregation. The popular theatre was owned by Bijou Amusement Company, one of the first African-American theatre chains in the South, and faced an armed robbery and picketers during the 1960s. The theatre was closed in 1975 and reopened in 1991 as a bar and then an internet cafe, before assuming its original name and becoming the popular music venue it is today.
Backstory and Context
Today, Lincoln Theatre is one of Raleigh’s most established music venues featuring top acts from around the world.1 Located in downtown Raleigh on East Cabarrus St., Lincoln Theatre has served multiple uses to the public since its establishment in 1939. After emerging from an old nightclub, the theatre was opened as a movie theatre and named “Lincoln” Theatre to help give the space a new sense of class and dignity after being seen as a “dirty” nightclub.2 The movie theatre catered primarily to the African-American community during segregation and was operated by the Bijou Amusement Company, one of the first African-American theatre chains in the South.3 Bijou Amusement Company’s Ed Haley4 bought the theatre and it became the second Lincoln Theatre owned by Bijou with the first being in Nashville, Tennessee.5 Raleigh’s Lincoln theatre was one of many movie theaters in Raleigh that operated successfully during the golden age of cinema. The Royal Theatre was located across the street from the Lightner Hotel and was called the “Rat Box” by the locals because it was infamous for its rat infestation.6 The Ambassador and the State Theatres catered to the Raleigh’s white population and the former was located just south of the State’s capital while the latter was located where the Police Department currently has their offices.7
On February 10, 1964, Lincoln theatre’s manager, H.E. Sharpe, suffered a bullet wound in his leg when an attempted robbery was made on the theatre. According to a newspaper account, “a bandit shot the manager of Lincoln Theatre here Monday night and threatened the projectionist before running from the second-floor offics and disappearing”8. Roosevelt Ruben Wright Jr., a 20-year old from Elizabeth City, was identified as the culprit when he came back to the theatre to watch a movie less than a month after the shooting. He was subsequently charged with assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill the theatre’s manager.9
H.E. Sharpe also faced picketers at the Lincoln Theatre in 1968 when some Shaw University students and other members of the local African-American community gathered outside of the theatre on May 21 with demands that the theatre be renovated.10 The picketers argued that the theatre manager was sent a petition of complaint about the poor shape of the theatre and its general need for a “physical uplifting” two weeks before the picket lines were formed.11 Manager H.E. Sharped told reporters that he planned on succumbing to the demands of the picketers and that a general renovation was planned with fresh paint already being applied to the inside of the theatre. After a few weeks of picketing, one of the picket leaders, Marvin Brock, declared that picketing will continue unless the theatre is closed for renovations or closed permanently.12
It appeared that Marvin Brock obtained his wish when Lincoln theatre was closed as a movie theatre in 197513 and remained empty and unused for years until 1991 when Pat Dickenson and partners bought the theatre for just $45,000.14 The theatre served as a bar called Gillies for a number of years before being transformed for a short time into an internet café, and then finally, assumed its original name “Lincoln Theatre” in the early 2000’s to become the popular live music venue that it is today. Renovations were made in 2005 to increase the theatre’s original capacity of about 600 to 900 and today,15 the theatre continues to feature some of the best national, regional, and local acts.16 The music venue has eagerly embraced its original name and is easily identified by a humorous mural of President Abraham Lincoln driving a Lincoln on the side of the building.