If the Royal Theater were standing along Pennsylvania Avenue, the showcase of Black music and entertainment would have turned 100 this year. It never made the century mark, demolished in 1971.
In the racially segregated Baltimore of the past century, the African American residents who lived nearby had a variety of entertainment choices. But the downtown film houses, as well as the largest department stores and restaurants, were off-limits to Black patrons.
Along Pennsylvania Avenue, the main street of the neighborhood, the Royal Theater competed with the Regent Theater, a spacious film house. The Regent was older than the Royal, as well as considerably larger, and it lasted somewhat longer.
“It was my favorite place to see a movie‚” said Milton A. Dugger Jr., who was a regular at the Regent during Pennsylvania Avenue’s heyday. “It had a wide aisle that cut across the middle of the theater, and that’s where I liked to sit, me and my buddies from Booker T. Washington and City College.”
Dugger, a musician and vocalist, was attuned to the entertainment district’s rhythm and mechanics.
“The Regent got the 20th Century Fox pictures, the Royal got the Columbia, the Universals went to the Harlem, and the Disneys went to the Met,” he said.
The Met or Metropolitan, which opened its doors to Black patrons in 1948 — it previously had been white-only — was the last of the old Black film houses to be demolished. It was taken down to allow construction of the North Avenue metro subway station in 1978.
The Met and the Regent were the first two theaters in Baltimore to be wired for sound motion pictures in the 1920s.
The Regent opened in 1916 and was owned for decades by the Hornstein family, who enlarged the original design to accommodate 2,250 patrons in 1921. A reporter for the Afro-American praised the house “as a legitimate playhouse where ... patrons would not be humiliated by the odious presence of Mister James Crow.”
“Its stage and screen were so large that it was easy to accommodate CinemaScope when it came along. When the movie ‘The Robe’ came to Baltimore in 1953, it played the Regent, and that’s where white audiences, who normally went to the Towne or the Hippodrome, went to see it,” Dugger said. “None of the downtown theaters had screens that big at the time.”
“I really loved the Regent,” said Dugger, who is known as the Baltimore Baron of Rhythm and Blues. “You felt you had space in there.”
The Regent Theater closed in 1974, some years after the Hornstein family sold it to local theater magnate Jack Fruchtman. It was demolished and replaced by the Shake & Bake Family Fun Center in 1982. The rec center, featuring skating and bowling, was sponsored by Baltimore Colts wide receiver Glenn Doughty.
Dugger said there was never a dull moment along Pennsylvania Avenue in the 1950s and 1960s.
“The Regent had the films, and the Royal had the musical acts,” he said. “The bill would change on Fridays [the entertainers would come in late Thursday], and the first performance would be at 1:45 p.m. Friday. There was a rehearsal, too, but the first performance was really a rehearsal, too. By the Friday night midnight show, the act was in really good shape.”
He said the Royal had movies, in addition to live music, for the price of a single admission.
“But they were B-movies, cops-and-robbers, or a very young Charles Bronson show,” he said.
So what brought about the end of the glory of the Pennsylvania Avenue entertainment district?
“Desegregation and television,” William Lloyd “Little Willie” Adams, the neighborhood’s top business and property owner, told a Sun reporter in 1975.
When the Royal Theater was about to be razed, an auctioneer advertised the sale of its concession booth, freezers, popcorn maker, glass candy case and soda bubbler.
“It was all very interesting times,” Dugger said. “I can still smell the popcorn. I can still smell the hot dogs, Esskay and Goetze’s.”