Jazz musician Louis Armstrong poses with his trumpet and his signature smile in 1931.
Jazz musician Louis Armstrong poses with his trumpet and his signature smile in 1931. (Associated Press)

Trumpeter and band leader Louis Armstrong announced his arrival in Baltimore by giving away 300 bags of coal in a poor black neighborhood. He offered the coal to those who appeared at the Royal Theatre’s doors on the morning of Dec. 11, 1931.

Armstrong would play concerts at the theater starting the next day and then for a week. The theater’s concert program stated that the coal would be given away free to those who could not afford to buy it, and a preference would be given to women. A photo, taken at 1329 Pennsylvania Ave., appeared in the Baltimore Afro-American and showed a woman being handed her coal from the Royal’s manager, Morris Flax.

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A photo from the coal giveaway at the Royal Theatre appeared in the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper in December 1931.
A photo from the coal giveaway at the Royal Theatre appeared in the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper in December 1931. (Courtesy Louis Armstrong House Museum)

Armstrong, then a nationally acclaimed musician with a weekly radio show and numerous recordings, had recently appeared in Washington and Philadelphia. Ads, hailing Armstrong as “the world’s greatest trumpeter,” said he would play on the stage and be accompanied by 50 performers. The evening prices included his stage show, a comedy act and the Marx Brothers film “Monkey Business,” and ranged from 15 to 50 cents.

Ads for his performances appeared both in the Afro-American and The Sun. There was also a Wednesday and Saturday midnight show and a live broadcast over AM radio station WCBM. Armstrong also took his band to other Baltimore venues for appearances.

Louis Armstrong in the 1930s.
Louis Armstrong in the 1930s. (Courtesy Frank Driggs collection)

White patrons were welcomed at the Royal Theatre, although African-Americans could not patronize the city’s whites-only film houses.

On Christmas Eve, Armstrong appeared at segregated, whites-only Lehmann Hall on Howard Street. The entry fee was $2.20 per couple for a dance. On Dec. 26, he played at Metropolitan Hall, an auditorium in the Orchard Street Methodist Church in Seton Hill, a black congregation.

“I came up through life the hard way, just like those folks,” he said in a recording of his memories of his Baltimore coal giveaway. “They made it their business to come backstage and thank me personally.”

Backed by a jazz quartet, Louis Armstrong plays before a packed house at the Lyric Theater in November 1959.
Backed by a jazz quartet, Louis Armstrong plays before a packed house at the Lyric Theater in November 1959. (William Klender / Baltimore Sun)
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