Before coming to Cincinnati, T. Spencer Finley was a successful actor, comedian, and producer in Washington, DC, where by 1910 he had “full charge of the stage management” at the Hiawatha Theater.
A news article from 1911 says of Finley, “It was he who made the Hiawatha the ‘court theater of Washington, opening the house and remaining a drawing card for over a year. Mr. Finley pioneered the local vaudeville field, and made it possible for scores of high-salaried performers to get a look-in on the local field. He has developed a situation that makes Washington a close rival to New York and Chicago as a Negro theatrical center.”
Finley performed comedy in blackface, as did many African American performers of the time. A news article from 1909 says that Finley’s weeknight performances were simply an “apparently inexhaustible fund of witty sayings.” But Sundays were different: “On Sunday evenings, Mr. Finley appears in ‘straight work,’ and renders classical baritone solos with a dignity that carries him far afield from his black-face comedy of the week.”
In 1919, T. Spencer Finley moved to Cincinnati, where he took over management of the Lincoln Theater on Fifth Street and the Lyceum Theater on Central Avenue. Both theaters catered to African American audiences and presented movies and vaudeville acts, as well as community meetings.
The Lyceum was a large theater, with 2,000 seats. But as a business, it had struggled. Journalist Wendell Dabney wrote that under Finley’s management, business improved, and the Lyceum became “one of the greatest theaters of our race in this country.”
The curtain fell in April 1921, when T. Spencer Finley died suddenly of a heart attack. He received a huge funeral at Union Baptist Church plus obituaries in papers in Cincinnati and Chicago and in Billboard magazine. He was buried in Union Baptist Cemetery.
The Lyceum Theater didn’t outlast Finley by much. Structural examinations in February 1922 revealed serious deficiencies in the roof framing, and the building was torn down to make way for a newer African American theater, the Roosevelt.
The Lincoln Theater lasted longer. It was a mainstay of African American cultural life in Cincinnati until being torn down in the ravages of “urban redevelopment” in the 1960’s.