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Baltimore’s Billie Holiday festival to celebrate black arts and culture on Pennsylvania Avenue

Lena Horne, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, the Nicholas Brothers, Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong and — especially — the great Billie Holiday are all coming back to Pennsylvania Avenue this weekend, to an area that was once as lively and as spirited as anything Washington, D.C., or New York City could offer.

True, most will be actors in “Stormy Weather” and “Cabin in the Sky,” two movie classics shown during Saturday’s inaugural Billie Holiday Music & Arts Festival. But if magic could somehow bring all these great performers back to life, they’d feel right at home on Pennsylvania Avenue. And that, festival organizers say, makes the area worth cherishing and revitalizing.

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Michael Johnson, organizer of this weekend’s Billie Holiday Music & Arts Festival.
Michael Johnson, organizer of this weekend’s Billie Holiday Music & Arts Festival. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

“Every artist that’s in both of those movies performed right here on Pennsylvania Avenue, that’s amazing,” says Michael Johnson, a retired educator and movie theater operator who is putting together the festival, a co-operative effort between several community and business organizations. “That’s what it was like, up here on the avenue.”

Beginning with a Friday night showing of the 1972 movie “Lady Sings the Blues,” a biopic starring Diana Ross as Holiday, the festival really takes off on Saturday, with live music, film screenings, history and cultural displays, an art exhibit and more. Saturday begins with the revival of a decades-old tradition returning to the community after years away — a Cadillac Auto Parade, featuring scores of classic and high-end cars driving from North Avenue to Dolphin Street. The parade will also feature marching bands, dance troupes, steppers and more.

Tony winner and Baltimore native André De Shields posted on Twitter Saturday a photo of himself in a crisp white suit, stating he was on his way to be the grand marshal of the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.

“Oh, the flavor that was Pennsylvania Avenue — I have pictures that are just amazing, about the people,” says Wanda Watts, event manager for the festival and an East Baltimore native whose mother spent 22 years working for an insurance company on the avenue. “When they’d go out for happy hour — we go out for happy hour in jeans and a T-shirt, but they didn’t — they got dressed-up. We’re hoping to bring some of that back, some of the pride and the history. We don’t want to lose our history; we absolutely do not want to lose our history.”

For much of the first half of the 20th century, Pennsylvania Avenue was a thriving center of black culture and arts, lined with movie theaters and jazz clubs, fine restaurants and prosperous businesses. A key stop on what was known as the Chitlin Circuit, performance venues in the eastern half of the U.S. that were essential stops for black singers, dancers, comedians and other entertainers, the avenue was a wonder to behold.

“It was a mecca for jazz,” says Watts. “When people came to Baltimore City, they knew they were gonna have jazz, great jazz outlets.”

Much of the area was devastated by the riots of 1968, and Pennsylvania Avenue has never fully reclaimed the glamour and prominence of its glory days. But civic leaders and residents have insisted that the area can come back. Earlier this year, state officials suggested they agree, designating the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor as an official arts and entertainment district, offering tax breaks for artists, arts groups and other individuals and businesses willing to invest in the community.

The festival, organizers hope, will both showcase what’s already happening and convince others to join in.

“For us, this is a chance to show the resilience of our community, and actually showcase the organizations that are doing a lot of good things on Pennsylvania Avenue,” says Wanda Best, executive director of the Upton Planning Committee. Businesses participating in the festival, many of them hosting events, include the Arch Social Club, Avenue Bakery, Upton Boxing Center, Shake and Bake Family Fun Center and Jubilee Arts.

But why focus on Holiday? Asks a laughing Johnson, “Why not?" Born in either Baltimore or Philadelphia in 1915 (accounts vary), she was definitely raised in Baltimore and has long been embraced as a proud daughter of the city. Few singers, in her day or since, have had a more profound effect on American music. Her recording of “Strange Fruit,” a song about a lynching, is considered among the most emotional, heart-rending vocal performances ever captured; in 1999, Time magazine called it the song of the century.

A statue of Holiday stands watch over the area, at Pennsylvania and Lafayette avenues. Along with the nearby re-created marquee of the Royal Theatre, a showplace for music, performance and cinema that was among the country’s premier black entertainment venues, it creates a tangible connection between the glory of what Pennsylvania Avenue once was and the bright future the organizers behind this weekend’s celebration hope to realize.

“You know, Baltimore’s not all about Station North; it’s not all about the Inner Harbor,” says Johnson. “There’s a group of people who remained in this city, good, bad or indifferent. And those were the African Americans who live around [this] area. Some are still here because they have nowhere else to go. But many of them are here because they want to be near the flavor of that avenue, of Pennsylvania Avenue. And that’s what we’re trying to bring back.”

If you go

The Billie Holiday Music & Arts Festival begins Friday, Aug. 30, with a 7:30 p.m. outdoor screening of 1972′s “Lady Sings the Blues” at the Robert C. Marshall Field, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. The celebration continues at 10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 31, with a Cadillac Auto Parade beginning at Pennsylvania and North avenues, then heading south to Dolphin Street. From noon-7 p.m., a performance stage at the Marshall field will feature artists performing jazz, funk, gospel and more. Other events, including films, art and history exhibits, and kids’ activities, are set for venues throughout the area. Free. historicupton.com.

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