Growing up in Baltimore, Ahmad Onyango, then 12, remembered there were several theaters in the city, but none of them were as large and popular as the Royal Theater. It was thrilling, he said, because it was the only place to see legendary Black performers like James Brown, Louis Armstrong, Redd Foxx and Billie Holiday.
This month marks the 100th anniversary of the Royal Theater, a star of a bygone era of Black entertainment in Baltimore.
But celebrating the centennial of the theater is bittersweet, said Onyango, 77, because during his adolescence, Pennsylvania Avenue in West Baltimore bustled with crowds of people, sounds, lights and the Royal. When the theater shut down in 1970 it was upsetting, he said.
“Even though there were other movie theaters down the avenue, the only one that had live performers was the Royal,” he said. “It was like a legend that left the community. They closed the doors, and that was it.”
The Douglass Theater, a 1,349-seat venue, opened Feb. 15, 1922, at 1329 Pennsylvania Ave. A few years later, the name was changed to the Royal, which became one of a handful of American theaters known for showcasing Black talent at a time when venues across the U.S. were segregated. Others, known as the Chitlin’ Circuit, included The Apollo in Harlem, the Earl in Philadelphia, the Regal in Chicago and the Howard in Washington, D.C.
Entertainers knew if they didn’t do well at the Royal, they were not going to do well in showbiz, said James Hamlin, president and founder of the nonprofit The Royal Theater & Community Heritage Corp., and owner of The Avenue Bakery in West Baltimore. He said the theater’s slogan “Always A Good Show” increased the pressure to give a superior performance.
“All those great performers played at the Royal and walked down the Pennsylvania Avenue,” said Hamlin, who was born and raised in Baltimore, and who remembers watching shows at the theater when he was 9 years old.
The theater closed doors in 1970, and the next year, its contents were auctioned.
[ Pennsylvania Avenue’s Royal Theater was the king of Black entertainment ]
Decades later, in 2005, Hamlin launched the nonprofit to spearhead the rebuilding of the Royal on its original site as the centerpiece of a revitalized Pennsylvania Avenue Black Arts and Entertainment District. But the effort has struggled to make progress.
Hamlin said the revitalization of the neighborhood and community has faced challenges, including a lack of funding and resistance from some in the area. “No one will come to the table to invest in the project if they have a sense that the community is not in support of it,” he said.
His goal is to continue to move forward with trying to raise funds and to convince the community that the project is good not only for the neighborhood, but for the city and the state because it can impact crime, he said.
“Outsiders don’t know the importance of this community and the theater. They don’t know the importance of revitalizing,” he said. “A lot of our politicians and head of departments are coming from other places. Some of our young people know the history somewhat, but they don’t know the total history.”
Speaking to a crowd of nearly 40 people outside his bakery on Feb. 15 to commemorate the theater’s 100th anniversary, Hamlin said he hoped the event shined a light on the importance of the legacy of the theater and the opportunity it presents to combine past, present and future.
“It is this project that will help create the economic revitalization and allow West Baltimore to take advantage of the third largest industry in Baltimore City, which is tourism,” he said.
At the commemoration, Deborah Onyango, wife of Ahmad, who was born in the city but grew up in Anne Arundel County, said she wished she had spent her teenage years in Baltimore. That way, she would have been able to go to the Royal with her cousins.
She said Hamlin was “trying to encourage young people to understand what Pennsylvania [Avenue] was and could be again.”
“It feels good to come,” said Darlene James, who grew up in Catonsville. While she was thankful for the celebration, she wished more people had shown up to mark the occasion and support the effort to restore the Royal. “They should be here. I don’t know — it should be packed …. More politicians should be here.”
City Council President Nick Mosby, who attended the commemoration, stressed the need to treasure and preserve the city’s Black history to keep it alive.
“If we don’t save it, if we don’t uplift it, if we don’t protect it, if we don’t preserve it, if we don’t put it in history books it will be forgotten,” he said. ”Something as historical as the Royal, its history should not be forgotten.”
Mosby said that other cities have managed to preserve their entertainment venues that have made significant contributions to Black history.
“The interesting thing about this theater is that there were five main theaters in the circuit. All the other four are still standing and operating, but in Baltimore City, we tore ours down,” Mosby said. “I think that’s very symbolic of some of the failed policies of the past — particularly for communities like this that the city has disproportionately disinvested in.”
Onyango said when the theater shut down, he lost a part of himself because there was nothing to replace it. He remains optimistic the Royal will rise again.
“I wonder when we’re gonna get the next one back because it will happen — it’s just a question of when.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story listed the wrong address for the Royal Theater. It was located at 1329 Pennsylvania Avenue. The Sun regrets the error.