From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)

The Gem Theater, and the Lincoln Theater (Lexington, KY)

Announced in the "Colored Notes" of the Lexington Leader newspaper on November 10, 1910, p.9, was the anticipated opening of the Gem Theater by two colored businessmen from Cincinnati, OH, John Clark and Chester Brady. The theater opened in the Old Blue Grass Theater location, 404 W. Main Street in Lexington,KY, and there was seating for up to 300 people. 

In print, the theater was sometimes referred to as a "Negro showhouse" [source: The Moving Picture World, v.29,  July-September 1916, p.120]. The theater was part of the Grand Central Vaudeville Circuit and the Dudley Circuit. The Grand Central Vaudeville Circuit was formed in Chicago in 1911 and included colored theaters in Lexington, Chicago, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, Springfield (Ohio), and Dayton [source: "New Circuit Formed. Vaudeville Managers of the Middle West Have Harmoninous Meeting in Chicago-New," Freeman, 02/04/2011, p.5].

The Gem was a picture house, and a stage for local talent shows and vaudeville entertainment. Sunday shows ran from one hour after lunch to about 10:30pm. In 1915, the Gem was one of the Lexington theaters that opposed the Sabbatarian Movement that wanted the movie shows, base ball, and other public pastime activities closed on Sundays during morning and evening church service hours [source: Main Street Amusement by G. A. Waller, pp128-136, "Sabbatarian Campaigns"]. When the theaters did not close on Sundays, indictments were handed down against the owners of the following Lexington theaters: Colonial, Orpheum, and the Gem. 

In support of the closings, Wilbur F. Crafts, founder of the American Sabbath Union, was brought to Lexington and he held several rallies at local churches. The rally for African Americans was held at the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). The grand jury indictments went to court in 1916 and each of the theater owners paid a $10 fine, and the Gem and other theater houses continued to be open on Sundays.

R. F. Bell was an early manager of the Gem, and in 1911 he purchased and reopened the Lincoln which was another colored theater in Lexington, KY that first opened in 1910 [sources: "Colored Notes" in the Lexington Leader on 11/26/1911, p.13, and 01/04/1912, p.11]. Bell purchased the Lincoln Theater at a sheriff's sale. The Lincoln was located at 415 W. Main in the building that had been the Pekin Theater; it was across the street from the Gem. In addition to movies and entertainment performances, the Lincoln also served as a distribution point for the sale of the Freeman newspaper [source: last sentence in the article "Lincoln Theater, Lexington KY" in the Freeman, 07/15/1911, p.6].

For a brief period, R. F. Bell managed both colored theaters. In 1912, R. F. Bell, under the name of Gem Theatre Company, opened a "vaudeville and moving picture house in Winchester [KY]" [source: "Colored Notes," Lexington Leader, 05/19/1912, p.4]. There was also a base ball team called The Gem Theaters, the team defeated the All-Stars in 1912 [source: "Colored Notes," Lexington Leader, 06/10/1912, p.7]. 

In 1914, the Gem, then at 415 W. Main Street, was sold to Willis Elwood Burden. Willis and his wife, Bertha Burden, are listed on p.154 in Polk's Lexington City Directory, 1914-1915 and again on p.165 in R. L. Polk & Co.'s Lexington City Directory, 1916-1917. Willis E. Burden was born abt1883 in Indiana, according to the 1910 U.S. Census, and his wife Bertha Burden was born abt1883 in Kentucky.

In 1910, the couple had lived in Madison, IN, and was the servant and cook for a private family. In 1911, the couple lived in Muncie, IN, and Willis and his brother James were the proprietors of Burden Brothers, owners of the Royal Cigar Store and Pool Room; and Willis, who was a tailor, also owned a cleaning, pressing, and repairing business [source: p.232 in Emerson's Muncie Directory, 1911-1912].

When Willis E. Burden purchased the Gem in Lexington in 1914, he moved his family to Kentucky. They were in Lexington for at least 2 years, 1914-1916, then left and settled in Cleveland, OH, where Willis Burden was employed as a chauffeur in 1923 [source: p.731 in Cleveland City Directory, 1923].

Neither the Gem Theater or the Lincoln Theater existed beyond 1916. The address 404 W. Main Street, the initial address given for the Gem, was soon the business location for Mutual Beneficial Life Insurance Company in 1914-1916; the Gem Theater had moved [sources: p.63 in Polk's Lexington City Directory, 1914-1915; and p.66 in R. L. Polk & Co.'s Lexington City Directory, 1916-1917]. 

The address, 415 W. Main Street, was the new location of the Gem in the 1914 city directory [p.652]; R. F. Bell had moved the Gem into what had been the Lincoln Theater. Neither the Gem Theater, nor the address 415 W. Main, was listed in the 1916-1917 city directory. For a more detailed account of the history of the Gem Theater, see "Gem Theater" in Main Street Amusement by G. A. Waller, pp.170-179.

Kentucky County & Region

Read about Fayette County, Kentucky in Wikipedia.
Read about Clark County, Kentucky in Wikipedia.

Kentucky Place (Town or City)

Read about Lexington, Kentucky in Wikipedia.
Read about Winchester, Kentucky in Wikipedia.

Item Relations

Cite This NKAA Entry:

“The Gem Theater, and the Lincoln Theater (Lexington, KY),” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed April 21, 2024,

Last modified: 2019-10-03 15:53:41