Hidden History: The Hippodrome Theater, formerly known as the ‘Harlem of the South’

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RICHMOND, VA (WRIC) — Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood is filled with rich history, music, and art, and is commonly referred to as the Harlem of the South.

In the middle of the historically black neighborhood sits the Hippodrome Theater.

The Hippodrome Theater was originally built in 1914 as a vaudeville and movie theater. 

Now in 2019, it continues to light up Second Street as a place where thousands of parties, concerts and private events held.

The current owner, Ronald Stallings, fully renovated the building in 2011 and strives to bring young people in, but says in the past it was a place where African Americans gathered in the toughest of times.

From the 1920s to 1940s the theater was the center of nightlife and entertainment. The Hippodrome was known as a place where people could catch a movie or live performance, but most importantly it was a safe space during segregated times, where black entertainers and audiences were allowed.

Iconic black artists like Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, and many others took center stage.

“The Hippodrome was a cultural heart of the historic Jackson Ward,” said Stallings. “It’s where people came to see the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles and also see movies”.

Richmond's Jackson Ward neighborhood is filled with rich history, music, and art, and is commonly referred to as the Harlem of the South.

As the thriving theater gained notoriety, disaster struck. 

A fire gutted the venue in 1945 shutting it down. Over the years, it reopened and closed several times, but in the 1970s things shifted. 

The theater was bought by James R. Stallings, father of current owner Ronald Stallings.

“My father was as much of my business partner as he was my father,” said Stallings. “One of the places he was really key on saving was the Hippodrome Theater. He felt that being the little cultural heart of Jackson Ward, it would draw people back to Jackson Ward that had no reasons to come.”

With the urbanization and renovation of the theater, Stallings says about a half million new people have been drawn to the neighborhood.

More people have been attracted to the theatre because of the talent that still takes the stage today, like Carl Lester-El.

He’s been a musician since 1982 and has performed on the Hippodrome stage several times.

“Music is my life,” Lester-El laughs. “I just felt honored to be on this stage because all of the artists who came before me who are well- known.”

He says every time he hits the stage it becomes a full-circle moment. Older music legends have paved the way for him to perform at the Hippodrome and the revitalized Hippodrome has paved the way for him and his son to perform together on the stage.

Although the theater has been renovated, original pieces remain like the walls, a projector that survived the fire, and a spotlight that shined down on Ella Fitz Gerald.

“We want to tell that story to the young people as African Americans so that they’re proud of their history, but also to non-African Americans who can have even more of a sense that African Americans had a role in building the United States,” said Stallings.

Stallings says the future of the Theater is limitless and he will continue to grow and educate the world on Richmond’s black history. 

Directly connected to the Theater is now a Speakeasy Grill that serves up Southern cuisine and fancy cocktails named after iconic black performers.

It is the former home of Rev. William Lee Taylor, president of The United Order of True Reformers.

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