Playwright remembers Royal Theatre's heyday with 'Sneakin' Out'

June 04, 1991|By Winifred Walsh | Winifred Walsh,Evening Sun Staff

The grand jazz days of the Royal Theatre on Pennsylvania Avenue are being revived in a glitzy new musical revue, "Sneakin' Out at the Royal," by Baltimorean Cherri Cunningham-Cragway. An Encore Dinner Theatre production, the show is playing at The Forum on Wednesday evenings through June 12.

The mellow tones of such stars as the Ink Spots, Dinah Washington and Cab Calloway have been re-created by 12 talented singers who also emulate such memorable groups as the Platters, the Supremes, the Temptations and the Drifters.

"The best years for the Royal were the late '30s and after World War II," said Cragway in a recent interview.

The Royal, which accommodated 1,349 people, opened in 1936 with Fats Waller and 18 uniformed usherettes. "It was a great theater with box seats, a large balcony, a big stage and a burgundy velvet curtain," she said. "Men and women dressed up to go there to see the big-name performers and bands of the day.

"The Royal ranked as one of the foremost black venues in the nation -- right along with the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, Howard's in Washington, D.C., the Regal in Chicago and the Earl in Philadelphia," said Cragway, a warm, outgoing woman who seemed thrilled to have her first play produced.

The building was demolished in 1971. The last act to perform at the Royal was the Jewel Box Revue in 1965. Cragway spent several years researching the history of the former movie-playhouse and interviewed more than 100 people who have fond memories of the place.

In its heyday, the Royal would present two or three cartoons, a travelogue and a major movie followed by the live performances and full orchestral accompaniment daily.

"Those days, kids whose parents didn't want them to go to the Royal alone hooked school to see their favorite performers," said Cragway. "They called it sneakin' out at the Royal. At that time you could see stars like Cab Calloway standing outside the theater taking a break. You could talk to him and get his autograph, not like the stars of today. The Royal artists considered it an honor to sign programs for their fans."

Smiling, she added, "June 12 will not be the last showing of 'Sneakin' Out.'" I plan to expand the play and stage it in another venue this summer."

Raised in northwest Baltimore, Cragway now lives in the Perry Loch community with her husband, Robert, and daughter, Rachel, 3.

A graduate of Morgan State University, she majored in theater arts and minored in speech and communication. For the past eight years she has been a housewife and now mother who, in her own words, is "finally spreading her wings and doing things to fulfill myself artistically."

An actress at Encore (the only black dinner theater in the Baltimore area) for four years, she plans to tour in a national production of Ntozake Shange's "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf," produced by C.E. Pugh Company.

"The tour celebrates the 15th anniversary of the show," said Cragway. "I will play the Lady in Red, a challenging role."

But she said her real challenge is writing. "When I was in college I took a playwrighting course. I wanted to see if I had any ability." Cragway has already produced two unpublished children's plays, "Be the Rose Not the Thorn" and "Mother Goose Surprise Party."

"I love to work with little people," she said, smiling.

Cragway said she was inspired to write about the Royal after she talked to musical director Melvin N. Miles Jr. and local actor/writer/director Gordon Parks, who recounted the acts they had seen there.

"They told me about Redd Foxx, Slappy White, Pegleg Bates, Earl Hines, Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong," she said. "Pearl Bailey started as a chorus girl at the Royal. Billie Holiday sang there. Tracy McLeary led the house orchestra for 17 years. He still lives in Baltimore.

"There is now a playground where the Royal once stood," noted Cragway. "The only trace of the theater is a plaque the size of an index card that is almost hidden in a grassy plot. Across the way is a statue of Billie Holiday, her left hand slightly raised and a gardenia in her hair.

"She seems to be saying the theater should never have been destroyed," Cragway said sadly. "It should have been restored. I only hope the musical helps to entertain and educate the people of Baltimore to keep the legend of the Royal and the jazz greats that came through its portals alive."

"Sneakin' Out at the Royal" continues on June 5 and 12 at the Forum, 4210 Primrose Ave. Dinner is at 6:30 p.m. and the show at 8 p.m. For tickets and other information, call 358-4655.

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