Located in downtown Athens, the Morton Theatre was the first vaudeville theater in the United States that was built, owned, and operated by an African American.
The successful businessman and politician Monroe Bowers "Pink" Morton financed the construction of the Morton Building (1909-10), located at 195 West Washington Street, on the corner of Washington and Hull streets. The building was the anchor of "Hot Corner," the commercial center of black life in Athens. The largest of the thirty buildings Morton owned, the four-story brick structure served a dual purpose. Many of Athens's black professionals, including doctors, dentists, pharmacists, jewelers, and barbers, practiced in the Morton Building. The second and third floors of the building, however, housed the Morton Theatre, one of the few establishments in Athens that hosted entertainment exclusively for the city's black community.
Originally built to seat 550, the Morton boasts a balcony forming a full horseshoe with tiered risers, pagoda-style boxes, and seating for about 300 on the orchestra floor. Wired for electricity at the time of its construction, the theater also retains its original gas-lighting outlets.
The Morton Theatre opened with a concert by the black classical pianist Alice Carter Simmons in 1910. Vaudeville and blues performers soon followed, including Cab Calloway and the Cotton Club's Butterbeans and Susie Review. Based on ticket stubs found later during renovation of the theater, it is believed that Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, and Duke Ellington also performed there.
In the 1930s Morton's son, Charlie, turned the theater into a movie house. It remained an important meeting hall for the African American community. Following a fire in the projection room in the 1950s, the fire marshal closed it down after discovering only one wooden stairway exit for the entire theater.
The Morton family sold the building in 1973, and the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. The Morton Theatre Corporation bought the building the following year, and in 1987, a local option sales tax referendum was passed, which provided $1.8 million for the theater's restoration. Construction was completed in 1993 under the new ownership of Athens–Clarke County, with the architect J. W. Robinson leading the historic preservation of the Morton. The following year the theater officially reopened as a community performing arts center.
Originally the center of the thriving black business district, the Morton is one of the few surviving buildings still serving its original purpose and one of only four black vaudeville theaters that still exist in the United States. Before the Morton was renovated, the B-52's used part of the building as rehearsal space for a time. R.E.M. filmed a music video for the song "The One I Love" in the renovated theater. The Morton Heritage Players present contemporary American theater productions throughout the year, as do the Athens Creative Theatre, the Black Theatrical Ensemble, and the Town and Gown Players.