The Cameo Theatre and Black Commerce Street
The Cameo Theatre, located at 1123 E. Commerce, originally served as one of several segregated film facilities for Black people in San Antonio. The theater was built in 1940, but the Leon, the Ritz, and the Keyhole theatres preceded the Cameo. The Cameo was a focal point for the latest Black films by Black producers. The Cameo served as a movie theater and a vaudeville house for singers and musicians. In the early years, performers such as Fats Domino, B.B. King, and Louis Armstrong played at the Cameo. Other performing musicians who stayed at the Deluxe Hotel across the street, may have visited the Cameo and included Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Lionel Hampton. This area was a hub of black businesses that served the community because of segregation. Unfortunately, during the 1980s, city leaders went along with a plan to erase the Black presence in this area.
The San Antonio Register Newspaper, Published June 7, 1940 announcing the formal opening of the CAMEO THEATRE, local businesses congratulated the theatre in the form of advertising to support the CAMEO publicly. See below:
Early history that influenced the building of the Cameo included D.W. Griffith’s racist film, Birth of a Nation (1915) which electrified Black civil rights activists and aspiring Black cinematographers. The film served as a catalyst for white supremacists across the country. The film was an anti-Reconstruction disgusting fairy-tale that casted Blacks in racist stereotypical roles while the Ku Klux Klan was presented as the great white hope. Its main attempt was to deny giving Black people equal rights. The film was widely protested by the Black community. However, Birth of a Nation sparked other responses as well, including efforts by Emmett J. Scott to produce Birth of a Race (1918), a production envisioned as a straightforward retort to Griffith’s racist film. Many of the Black films generated sought to create positive and truthful images of Black life and to demonstrate the ignorance of racialized thought.
The Cameo was in the economic Black section of San Antonio at the time and in the area known as St. Paul Square (Sunset Station) extending to the edge of the central business district. Since all of the downtown restaurants, such as Joske’s, Kress, and Woolworth, were segregated, Blacks had to go to this segregated section of the city. Later, after the area was gentrified and the black businesses replaced, its history was erased. During its time, the theatre was in walking distance from the black community. Residents from the East Terrance Housing Projects, the Wheatley Courts, and black middle-class residents from the Denver Heights area, often could be seen trekking up E. Commerce to see a film produced by Black film makers. Blacks from the Sutton Homes and the Carson Homes also attended the theatre, while Blacks from the West and North Sides rode often rode the bus to get to the area. Films in the 1960s were divided into two parts at the Cameo, and during the intermission people would be entertained with the recordings of the latest Black music such as Booker T. and the MGs and others. These films, which were once called “Race films,” were the tags applied to Black films between 1910 and 1950.
Films shown at the Cameo were the result of the pioneer works of Black film producers before the Cameo was built. Leading the way in Black film production was Bill Foster (1884), founder of the first known Black motion picture company in 1910. Others included Noble Johnson who developed the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in 1916, Oscar Micheaux who created the Micheaux Film Company in 1918, and Spencer Williams (1893–1969), who made the most well-liked “race movie” ever released, Blood of Jesus (1941), which was produced in Texas and shown at the Cameo. These films attempted to counteract white supremacist propaganda.