Paying tribute to the Royal

November 08, 1991|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Evening Sun Staff

GONE ARE the glory days of the Royal Theater, the popular black concert hall and movie theater that attracted big stars and big crowds for decades before closing 20 years ago.

Gone are the days when Royal Theater usherette Mabel Kelly would seat hundreds of people for a show and then run errands for the likes of Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Billie Holiday.

Gone, perhaps, but not forgotten.

"Everybody loved the Royal Theater, honey," said Kelly, 66.

A salute to the Royal -- closed in 1970 and demolished in 1971 -- is scheduled Sunday at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall for former patrons and employees. It will be a showcase of local black talent as well as a homecoming for stars and groups who appeared at the theater in its heyday. Gene Chandler (the "Duke of Earl"), The Drifters and Jerry "The Ice Man" Butler are expected to perform.

In the early 1950s, dressmaker Arline Jones used to meet her teen-age girlfriends at an ice cream shop and walk over to the theater to catch a Saturday performance. "The kids used to cut up so bad," Jones, 58, said of the melees that sometimes broke out during and after the shows.

"They would listen to the show OK, but every once in a while, there would be arguments," Jones recalled. "They'd fight all the time."

The Royal was a regular stop on the performing circuit for up-and-coming performers and established stars such as Count Basie, the Ink Spots, Fats Waller and Nat King Cole -- who was a very good man, as Kelly recalled.

"People think of entertainers as worldly people," Kelly said. "But Nat was a spiritual man. He never raised his voice. He was kind to everybody."

Located at 1329 Pennsylvania Ave., the Royal was one of the main attractions on "The Avenue," which was the social, cultural and theatrical center for black Baltimoreans in the days of segregation.

"It was movies, theaters, nightclubs," remembers Alice Myers, a Royal cashier. "It was the biggest thing we had at that time."

The theater opened in 1921 as the Douglas and changed to the Royal five years later. In its heyday, the Royal seated more than 1,300 people, who came to see the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and band leader Jim Lunceford perform in front of luxurious velvet curtains. Later, The Drifters, The Platters, The Coasters and The Temptations came and made their mark before continuing on the black entertainment circuit -- New York's Apollo, Chicago's Regal and Washington's Howard.

A playground has now replaced the Royal Theater, to the dismay of people who thought the Royal was a historical landmark and should have been preserved.

As part of Sunday's salute to the Royal, local gospel and non-gospel groups will be eligible to compete for the Royal Theater '91 Salute Award and a $2,000 recording contract. For more information about competing, call 728-8970.

The salute to the Royal Theater starts at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets: $18.50 and $20.50. Call 481-6000.

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