Ska Takes Center Stage at the Palace Theater

Jamaica 2013 972

This is the interior of the Palace Theatre today in downtown Kingston. It’s hard to imagine that this outdoor movie theater was once not only host to some of the most legendary Jamaican ska and music artists, but this is the very stage that launched their careers. The Palace Theatre was home of the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour, a talent show akin to American Idol or The Voice.

Vere Johns was a theater manager. After serving for many years in the newspaper industry, Johns turned to offering crowds a variety show on nights when the spaghetti westerns and musicals weren’t flickering through the tropical nighttime air. The idea for a variety show came from Vere Johns’ second wife, Lillian Margaret May Johns, who thought that entertainment competitions would bring in extra money on off nights. The competitions took place here at the Palace Theatre and because the show was so successful, it was then replicated at the other theaters Johns managed, the Majestic, Ward, Carib, Queens, Gaiety, Ambassador and others.

The Vere Johns Opportunity Hour featured dancers, instrumentalists, vocalists, comedians, and even performers on bicycles as well. Ten acts appeared on each bill and admission was less than a shilling. Vere Johns auditioned performers each Tuesday and Thursday at 3 p.m. Winners were selected based solely on audience approval—who received the loudest applause at the end of the night won the show. Needless to say, this form of selection allowed plenty of opportunity for corruption, such as packing the house with one’s own friends or supporters, or paying off people to clap for a chosen artist. After the artists performed, Vere Johns stepped onto stage and held the cash prize of two pounds over each person’s head until the audience responded with the appropriate level of applause. Sometimes after a performer won, audience members approached the winner in a threatening manner to demand part of the spoils. If a performer won or came in second place, they returned the next week to perform again, so the corruption continued. Winning the popular talent contests assured success in the musical circuit. The experience was done more for the exposure than the money.

So who are these legends who got their start here on this stage? They include Desmond Dekker, Alton Ellis, John Holt, Laurel Aitken, Bob Andy, Derrick Morgan, the Wailers, and Anita Mahfood. In 1997 Derrick Morgan told me, “I started at the age of 17 at a talent show in Jamaica at the Palace Theater by imitating Little Richard, singing ‘Long Tall Sally’ and ‘Jenny Jenny’ that night at the contest. At the contest I sang first. From there, there was a comedian in Jamaica called themselves Bim and Bam and they started taking me around doing stage shows. That was in 1957.”

The stage at the Palace Theatre today should be a museum, a landmark to the music launched here, but instead it is in a terrible state of disrepair. While on this spontaneous tour of the interior in February of this year, the owner told me that there is a remote possibility they will remodel the theater, but it is more likely it will be razed due to safety concerns and expense. The original movie projector is still in the projection booth, a relic of the past, but the ghosts of the early ska era still flicker on the stage, and in our hearts and minds.