The Morton Theatre was built in 1910 by Monroe Bowers “Pink” Morton. He was a successful African-American contractor and businessman. The Morton Theatre sits at the corner of Washington and Hull Street, an area that was the heart of the African-American business sector at the time. Besides the theater, there were also business offices where notables such as Dr. Ida Mae Johnson Hiram (the first African-American woman licensed to practice dentistry in Georgia) and Dr. William H. Harris (one of the founders of the Georgia State Medical Association of Colored Physicians, Dentists, and Druggists) practiced.
The Morton Theater offered entertainment that included local talent as well as nationally touring vaudeville and musical-theater groups. Notable artists that performed at the Morton Theater included Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Blind Willie McTell, Ma Rainey, and Sissieretta Jones (“the Black Patti”).
In the 1930s, the theater was fitted with a projection booth. Though the theater scheduled both movies and live performances over the next decade, movies became the bigger draw and the last live performance took place in 1944. In 1954, a small fire broke out in the projection room. The fire marshal then closed the theater because it did not have an adequate number of emergency exits.
The building was sold to Bond Properties, Inc. in 1973. Citing tax increases, John T. Bond warned that he would be unable to keep the building. Concerned citizens rallied to find a way to save the theatre and restore it for use as a performing-arts center.
Jill Jayne Read, known as Prof. J. J. to her theatrical colleagues, created a program of skits and songs reminiscent of what would have been performed at the Morton Theater in its early years, and called the show Vaudeville. With a cast of locals amateurs, she held a benefit performance of the show in June 1981. It was a success with audiences and critics but failed to raise the needed funds. Two more productions of the show were performed at the Morton Theatre, November 3-6, 1982 and November 12-15, 1986, with other types of fund-raising performances and events occuring during this period as well.
Thanks to the passage of a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax referendum, the needed funds to restore the Morton Theater became available. Ownership of the building was transferred to the Athens-Clarke County Government. In 1993, the facility reopened as a theatrical venue. It remains to this day. Among the acts that have graced the stage since its reopening are Pinetop Perkins, the Sun Ra Arkestra, and Robyn Hitchcock.