Nostalgia projected against brick wall History: Those who flocked to black theaters are not ready to roll the credits on what was a grand part of Baltimore. But they are on their own.

December 01, 1998|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Gwendolyn Delores Shipley remembers. So do Mabel Aquilla-Larkins, John Burleigh and so many others of the generation who experienced the delight of the flashing marquee, flickering feature and all-important live stage show.

Come Saturday night, they dressed in their best and headed for the beckoning yellow and red neon tubes that spelled out Royal, Regent, Harlem and Carey, the Northwest Baltimore entertainment palaces they considered their own.

As Baltimore tries to bolster its downtown by refurbishing the Hippodrome Theatre, some say the traditional black entertainment district and its historic value are being overlooked -- if recalled at all.

"We need our own history restored and renewed. The black portion of entertainment is overlooked, often by our own politicians," says Aquilla-Larkins, a Longwood Street resident whose father, William Arthur Aquilla, was the Royal's stage manager in the years when it was one of neighborhood's proudest landmarks at 1329 Pennsylvania Ave.

"I would go so far as to say the performers at the Royal were better than those at the Hippodrome. We had world-class, world-renowned performers -- Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Lionel Hampton, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and Count Basie," says Burleigh, a Madison Avenue resident.

"A great number of Baltimoreans still feel the pain of the Royal's silent passing," says Aquilla-Larkins.

"I don't know what happened to the Royal. Nobody knew it was going to be torn down," she said. The Royal was demolished in 1970. In its place today are apartment units.

"I cried when they tore down the Royal," says Shipley, 67, a retired Hecht Co. employee, who grew up on Fairmount Avenue between Pine and Arch streets.

The Regent, at 1619 Pennsylvania Ave., was the Royal's competitor. It was large, with 2,250 seats -- and a hotel alongside. It too was razed in the 1970s.

"It had a very grand pipe organ that rose up from the orchestra, like Radio City," said Burleigh.

From about 1915 through the 1970s, theater patrons could be very selective about how they spent their time and admission fees. During those years, most Baltimore neighborhoods possessed several movie theaters. Live stage acts lasted at the Hippodrome until the 1950s; they remained at the Royal some years longer.

"The old movie theaters were the primary entertainment generators of their time. Television was the first medium to challenge them, in the way that e-mail is giving competition to standard mail delivery from the post office," says Terrance Demas, executive director of the League of Historic American Theatres.

Television was but one of the forces that destroyed the classic urban movie houses of Northwest Baltimore. "It is sad to say, but the era of the top entertainment bookings passed long before the actual demolition of our theaters," says Burleigh.

There is a local effort to open a classic film house as a memorial to black entertainers. It is not, however, on Pennsylvania Avenue. It is a half-mile east, at North and Charles.

"We're trying," says Michael Johnson, founder of Heritage Shadows of the Silver Screen, a group with a two-year lease on the 1915 Parkway Theatre at 5 W. North Ave. It is Johnson's second attempt at creating a theater aimed at celebrating African-American-oriented cinema. His first effort, the Heritage Playhouse Theater on 25th Street, was open less than a year in 1997.

Some 20 friends of the Heritage group spent this past Sunday opening and cleaning its former lobby, which is to be named for Clarence Muse, the Baltimore film actor who appeared in about 350 movies before his death. Benefit performances by jazz artist and poet Gil Scott-Heron are scheduled for this weekend.

"The theater has been closed for 21 years. It needs a lot of work. We're selling Christmas trees and holding car washes," Johnson says.

Baltimore once had more than 90 movie theaters. While a few classic movie houses have endured -- the Senator in Govans, the Hollywood in Arbutus and the Charles near Penn Station -- most have been torn down or converted to other uses. Just recently, a community group in Southeast Baltimore bought the old Grand Theatre in Highlandtown, announcing plans to reopen it. The Patterson, just around the corner on Eastern Avenue, is due to be converted into artists' studios.

A handful of other old theaters now function as churches, such as the former Harlem on Gilmor Street, now the Harlem Park Community Church.

"I am told the Harlem was once one of the finest black movie houses around," says its pastor, the Rev. Raymond Kelly, who today leads a congregation of 300 there.

Burleigh, once a regular at the Harlem, recalls its celestial ceiling, the twinkling electrical stars and projected clouds that floated over the audience's heads 60 years ago.

The historic heart of Baltimore's black neighborhoods was the residential area that fanned out along Argyle, Pennsylvania and Druid Hill avenues, as well as Division Street.

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