Remembering the Royal

August 26, 1991|By Winifred Walsh | Winifred Walsh,Evening Sun Staff

TRACY MCCLEARY still speaks sadly about the demolition of the once flourishing Royal Theater, which stood for decades at 1329 Pennsylvania Ave.

"The plaque is all that is left to remind today's generations that a great heritage was represented at this spot. The Royal was a posh theater," notes McCleary, who from 1948 to 1966 was the maestro of the 12-piece house orchestra.

Through the theater's elegant portals passed the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey, Nat King Cole, the Ink Spots, Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Redd Foxx, Dionne Warwick, Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles, Eubie Blake, Chick Webb and a host of other illustrious names.

McCleary, 76, recalls them during an interview in his home in the Hunting Ridge area where he lives with his wife Carole, their three daughters -- Tracey, Leila, Christina -- and little granddaughter Sierra.

Built in 1921, the theater was part of a circuit of five major black houses -- the Apollo in Harlem, Howard's in Washington, D.C., the Regal in Chicago and the Earl in Philadelphia.

This prominent black playhouse where performers often premiered their acts closed in 1966. After repeated attempts to preserve the venue failed, it was destroyed in 1971.

A children's playground has replaced the old theater building, and nearby, facing the 1300 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, stands the statue of Billie Holiday, her hand raised, the familiar gardenia in her hair. All that remains of the Royal are a commemoration plaque on a grassy plot -- and the memories.

"It seated 1,349 and had a beautiful velvet curtain, elaborate boxes overlooking the stage and uniformed ushers," McCleary says. "People came in their best finery to see the stars and a variety of acts that included Hungarian acrobats, dancing bears and singing dogs."

The house band was known as Tracy McCleary's Royal Men of Rhythm. "We played seven days a week, four shows a day," McCleary said.

McCleary played for most of them. A man of dignified bearing and gentle humor, the musician was sitting in his living room sorting through old Royal Theater programs and photographs of band members and featured acts.

Adept at the saxophone, clarinet, trumpet and flute, McCleary often joined his orchestra to play the sax and, occasionally, the flute. He also served as emcee for many of the shows and introduced the performers.

"I told no jokes," he said, laughing. "The band always opened the show with a popular number of the day but we had no signature song.

"In between the live shows, the Royal presented first-run movies, cartoons and travelogues," he said.

McCleary has stacked up more than 50 years in the music business. He came to Baltimore from an engagement in New York in 1936 and after a stint as band leader at the old Carlin's Park open-air dance arena, signed on with the Royal Theater for the 1938-1939 season.

"I left the Royal to tour professionally," McCleary said. "But there was not much money to be made those days." In 1948 the musician and his group became the Royal's permanent house band.

Born in McCurtain County, Okla., the son of a black farmer and a Choctaw Indian, he moved at an early age with his family to Oklahoma City. McCleary got his first real taste of jazz at Douglas High School where he learned to play sax. In 1933 he attended Talladega College on a music scholarship but soon switched over to Oklahoma State College.

"Oklahoma had three dance bands, a 70-piece concert orchestra and a 50-piece marching band. From then on it was music, music, music," he said.

As Royal band leader, McCleary was responsible for all the music at the theater. He was in charge of program and song arrangements as well as the hiring and firing of the artists. "I found the biggest thing is to get along with people. Make allowances for shortcomings," he said.

"Some stars were testy," he said. "If the act was not going well, it was everybody's fault . . . not theirs. I found the bigger the performers, the easier they were to get along with.

"Pearl Bailey was just a dancer in the chorus line then. Her brother was Bill Bailey, a great dancer. Billie Holiday was troublesome," he noted. "She took drugs and was mostly always out of it."

About Cab Calloway, McCleary was a bit reticent. "Cab was all right to work with," was all the comment he would make.

"Musicians are not usually friends with stars," he said, laughing. "Musicians must study and practice and practice and practice. Performers can be little talented but look good with music.

"Dinah Washington was a bit difficult," he said. "Dionne Warwick was not very impressive when she sang a Nelson Riddle repertoire. Her performance was not up to the music. My prediction, wrong, of course, was she would not ever make it."

McCleary once employed Ray Charles to warm up the audience for the stars. Charlie Parker was a member of the band for a short time.

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