Meyerhoff show to salute Royal Theater

November 08, 1991|By Eric Siegel

It's been 20 years since the Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue was torn down to make way for an urban renewal project. Though the famed venue -- where for decades black entertainers from Cab Calloway to the Temptations strutted and sang their stuff -- is long gone, it has not been forgotten.

In fact, local promoter Billy Taylor has put together an oldies package Sunday night at the Meyerhoff Hall that he is dubbing "A Salute to the Royal Theater." In addition to Jerry Butler, Gene Chandler and the Drifters, who played the Royal in its last decade, Taylor is planning to honor from the stage some of those who worked at the theater in its heyday.

"The Royal was one of the last places where an African-American artist had a chance to not only practice his craft but learn his craft," recalls Mr. Butler, whose string of smooth soul hits, first with the Impressions and then on his own, led to his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last January. "You only got 10-15 minutes on stage and everyone [on the bill] had a hit record, so what distinguished you was how you presented yourself on stage."

The 48-year-old Butler, now a Cook County, Ill., commissioner who sings on weekends, says there was "a lot of camaraderie" among the performers, who ranged from the "greatest to the newest." He said audience members "didn't want to leave their seats" for fear of missing one of the acts.

Mabel Kelly, 66, who worked as an usherette at the Royal for three years in the mid-1940s for "6 or 7 dollars" a week and went several times as a spectator, is planning to attend Sunday's concert. "It was the place where black people would go to see entertainers of their own race make a name for themselves," she recalls.

"Sometimes, you'd go to the Royal two or three times to see the same show," she adds. "You might go Saturday or Sunday and then go back Tuesday night."

Although a variety of economic and social changes spelled the end of the Royal and similar theaters in other cities, Mr. Taylor, a vTC former radio disc jockey, believes the time may be right for another Royal-styled theater featuring smaller black acts. He says he and a business partner are eyeing as one possibility the historic Hippodrome on Eutaw Street, which has been closed for more than a year and is up for sale for $795,000.

"If we had a venue, people would be asking us to bring groups in," says Mr. Taylor, who will donate $500 of Sunday's proceeds to activist Bea Gaddy's efforts to feed the homeless. "We would promote concerts like in the old days."

In the meantime, he hopes Sunday's concert "will heighten the consciousness level about the cultural landmark that was lost" when the Royal was demolished.

Salute to the Royal Theater

Who: Jerry Butler, Gene Chandler, the Drifters

When: Sunday, Nov. 10, 7 p.m.

Where: Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

Tickets: $20.50, $18.50

Call: (410) 481-6000

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