Recalling a Royal legacy

Monument: A coalition is working to return some of the past the African-American community lost when the Royal Theater was torn down.

April 10, 2000|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

Ruby Glover had butterflies last night, the fluttering of fear and anticipation that vexes performers on the long walk from the wings to center stage.

A jazz singer, Glover has been performing since she was a child. Now 70, the lifelong Baltimorean said she'd worry if butterflies didn't usher her onstage.

"That's how you know that things are going to be exciting," she said.

Glover's challenge at the Senator Theatre last night was double: create immediate thrills with Duke Ellington tunes while re-creating the excitement of the fabled Royal Theater during a benefit concert to memorialize the long-gone Pennsylvania Avenue show house.

"I played there one night with about 19 acts. I went on with a gentleman who played the organ," Glover said. "But we lost the theater [a few years after] the riots. There was no thought among black families that it would be torn down there was urban renewal, and the Royal had to pay the price."

Local African-American history paid a bigger price when the Royal -- Baltimore's equivalent of the Apollo Theater in Harlem -- closed in 1970 and vanished a year later.

The fund-raiser yesterday evening, dubbed "A Royal Night at the Senator," was organized by George Gilliam and the Pennsylvania Avenue Committee, the latest effort to erect a marquee-styled monument near the field where the 1,350-seat theater stood on Pennsylvania Avenue, not far from West Lafayette Avenue.

The memorial, cater-corner from a statue of Billie Holiday, will cast a show-business glow over the intersection, play music, celebrate legends and cost between $260,000 and $300,000 to complete. A group of black Baltimore businessmen spent $400,000 to erect the 90-by-172-foot theater in 1921.

As stagehands put up lights and a sound system, Gilliam put up an exhibit about Royal Theater history in the Senator's lobby and hoped that the gig would be one of the last necessary to pay for the monument.

Already in hand are a pair of $100,000 grants from the city and state, according to Gilliam, who said that last night's show cost about $10,000.

In addition to Glover, the evening featured the Dunbar High Jazz Band, a Moms Mabley impersonator, the Royal Theater House Band and Jonathan Compton, better known as former WWIN disc jockey "Sir Johnny O," as master of ceremonies.

With tickets running $50 and $35 at the 900-seat Senator, Gilliam said a good night at the door would likely net a $10,000 profit.

About 700 people showed up for the event, said Senator owner Tom Kiefaber, who said organizers would tally the proceeds this week.

"It was a phenomenal evening," he said.

Groundbreaking for the two-story brick monument is scheduled for June 17 during the Pennsylvania Avenue Commit- tee's fourth annual Historic Cadillac Parade of marching bands and vintage cars.

"I remember sneaking out of my mother's house in Reservoir Hill when I was 12 or 13 to see James Brown at the Royal for maybe $2 or $3. It was right at the tail end of its heyday, around 1965 or '66," said Gilliam.

The former home to such entertainment -- from Eubie Blake to the "Godfather of Soul" -- is now a neighborhood baseball diamond -- no field of dreams but "sacred ground" to 80-year-old Lena Boone, whose back porch faces the lot.

In an interview last year, Boone said: "As a kid, as soon as you would see the marquee, you would start running and get your ticket."

Kiefaber, who offered his venue at a reduced rate for last night's fund-raiser, said he is committed to rebuilding the Royal Theater -- somehow, somewhere -- from surviving blueprints of the original.

"Right now, the tour buses pull up to see a vacant lot," Kiefaber said. "They made a big mistake when they took it down, and it took this long for everybody to figure it out."

Glover believes there are many ways to keep the heritage of black music, especially jazz, alive in the age of hip-hop.

"The beauty of jazz is that all of the songs lead you to tell your own story," said Glover. "That's what made Billie Holiday famous. I met her once on Pennsylvania Avenue. She told me to always be as much as I could for myself, to think of the brighter side of the rainbow and to always know that you are loved."

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