Preserving theater history

Past: A community group works to build a memorial to the Royal Theater, once Baltimore's premier showcase for black talent.

June 15, 1999|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Sitting on the steps of her West Baltimore rowhouse, Lena J. Boone reminisces about the days when the giants of jazz once performed in her back yard.

The average passer-by would never know that in the middle of the 1300 block of Pennsylvania Ave. -- known as "The Avenue" for the bright lights and star-studded shows that for decades graced Charm City -- stood a monument with a bittersweet history, the Royal Theater.

"It was a beautiful building " says Boone, 80. "The curtains were gorgeous; the carpet was so thick and plush; the ushers were dressed in their uniforms.

"I remember as a kid, as soon as you would see the marquee, you would start running and get your ticket."

Today, 28 years after the Royal was razed, a group of business people is working to build a memorial to the theater, which was constructed in 1921 so black entertainers could showcase their talents.

The Royal became part of a renowned entertainment circuit that included the Apollo Theater in Harlem and featured local legend Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Charlie Parker and others.

"Because of the rich history and what the Royal meant to Baltimore and the state, our objective is to preserve that memory for our kids," says George Gilliam, chairman of the Pennsylvania Avenue Committee, which seeks to preserve the community's history.

The committee has raised $240,000 for the $300,000 project -- a $100,000 grant from the city, a $105,000 grant from the state and the rest in private donations.

The two-story brick memorial, which organizers hope to build toward the end of the year, will stand at the southeast corner of Pennsylvania and Lafayette avenues with an electronic billboard that displays the names of those who performed at the Royal.

The effort to build the memorial will be highlighted during the committee's annual Cadillac Parade Saturday, an event from black Baltimore's past in which a line of luxury cars travel down The Avenue, the city's center of commerce for African-Americans from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Boone, who has worked to preserve the history of West Baltimore, recalls those days with vivid detail.

She's been the guardian of what she calls the "sacred" Royal Theater site, now a baseball field.

Boone's back porch overlooks the field. At times, she sits there and recalls the heyday of the Royal, which was built by a group of black businessmen 78 years ago.

Their corporation, Douglas Amusement Co., spent a reported $400,000 to construct the Douglas Theater at 1329 Pennsylvania Ave. -- a 90-by-172-foot building with a facade that dominated the block, according to construction records. The name was changed to the Royal in 1926, records state.

For almost two decades, Tracy McCleary and his Kentuckians were the Royal's house band.

McCleary recalls the line for tickets stretched around the block. Sometimes 2,000 people would pack the 1,350-seat theater with a tough crowd that gave the Royal a name for making or breaking performers, depending on the praise or disapproval they received.

"The big day was Friday," says McCleary, 84 and still living in Baltimore. "We always played the midnight show. Back then, to go to the Royal, people did make an attempt to dress up."

"You couldn't find anyone walking up and down Pennsylvania Avenue in jeans," Boone says.

Between shows, entertainers often would gather at Mom's, a soul food restaurant across the street from the Royal.

Then there were the nightclubs, such as William L. "Little Willie" Adam's Club Casino.

"It was the prettiest place on Pennsylvania," says Adams, 85, who opened the club in 1950. "We had a lot of entertainers. The Club Casino was big for 10 or 12 years."

Ballrooms, shops and hotels also lined Pennsylvania Avenue, where blacks were forced to shop, eat and perform during the Jim Crow era.

Segregation fostered a boom for black businesses. But it also left a painful memory for entertainers who were restricted to black theaters, such as the Royal.

For some, the Royal was a symbol of a racist America that prohibited blacks from performing and attending shows at white-only theaters -- a memory they would just as well forget rather than memorialize.

The Royal was part of what was known as the "Chittling Theatre Circuit," a group of halls for black performers that included the Apollo in New York, the Howard in Washington, the Earl in Philadelphia and the Regal in Chicago.

"These were the entertainment meccas for us to go to," says James E. "Biddy" Wood Sr., a former editor and manager of the Baltimore, Washington and Richmond Afro-American newspapers and an entertainment manager. "I went to the Royal and I enjoyed the shows, but I think it was a sad commentary on our society."

When asked about a memorial to the Royal, at first Wood, 75, questions the decision. "A memorial to what? To some place you built to contain me. I couldn't go to Ford's Theater. If I sound bitter, maybe I am."

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.