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Pennsylvania Avenue’s Royal Theater was the king of Black entertainment

The Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue operated for 48 years.
The Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue operated for 48 years. (I. Henry Phillips Sr. / I. Henry Phillips Sr.)

It was just 99 years ago that a theater opened along Pennsylvania Avenue in the heart of a Baltimore Black neighborhood. When its doors opened, it was called the Douglass. A few years later, it was renamed the Royal. And there was never a dull moment until it closed 48 years later.

People who experienced the Royal, and the entertainment it offered, continue to regret its passing. A re-created tribute marquee marks the home of the legendary playhouse at Pennsylvania and Lafayette avenues.

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So why was the Royal the stuff of legends? Because the biggest names in Black entertainment played here, live and for affordable prices. It was constructed with a large stage, orchestra pit and dressing rooms to accommodate a live cast and chorus.

Marion Anderson, the contralto who was the first Black woman to sing at the Metropolitan Opera and who gave a performance at the Lincoln Memorial when the Daughters of the American Revolution denied her permission to sing at their Washington, D.C., hall, appeared on the Royal’s stage in February 1931.

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Her concert began on a Sunday, at 8:50 p.m. to accommodate persons who spent the day in church. Ads said she appeared “direct from her sensational triumph in Berlin, Germany and other European Capitals.”

“In beauty of timbre and texture her voice is amazing rich and smooth as satin,” wrote an Afro-American newspaper critic. She sang the classics and spirituals, including “Trampin” and “City Called Heaven.” ... Her “Alleluia” by Mozart had a fascinating effect.”

When trumpeter, singer and band leader Louis Armstrong came to Baltimore at the end of 1931, he too headed to Pennsylvania Avenue and the Royal’s doors. As part of his stay here, he gave away 300 bags of coal to the poor.

Armstrong was on a national tour. Ads said that he would appear on stage accompanied by 50 other performers. He proved a huge hit and for a 15- to 50-cent admission price, audiences also saw the Marx Brothers film “Monkey Business.”

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Armstrong was then a national radio star. His Wednesday and Saturday midnight show was broadcast live over AM radio station WCBM. Armstrong also took his band to other Baltimore venues, including the old Metropolitan Hall in Seton Hill.

The Royal hosted all sorts of events — and played films as well.

After the death of Chick Webb, a hugely popular band leader and drummer from Baltimore who was a mentor to singer Ella Fitzgerald, a group of his friends organized a midnight memorial show. Where else but the Royal?

The show had to be staged around what was booked already — another jazz great, Earl Hines, who played for many years at the Grand Terrace in Chicago. He brought along vocalists Billy Eckstein and Madeline Greene and a trio known as the Tree Varieties.

The Afro-American newspaper said of the February 1941 booking, “Father Hines [as he was known] developed his interest in the jazz medium in the most unorthodox manner known to show business. He developed swing from improvisations on church hymns.”

In the segregated times, the Royal flourished. Typical of the fare was the 1951 arrival of jazz orchestral leader Erskine Hawkins with vocalist Savannah Churchill.

And while the greats of music headed to the Royal, it was also a neighborhood film house where generations of film-goers just came to be entertained.

Like so many other Baltimore theaters, the Royal met its end during a mania for urban renewal. The playhouse closed in 1970, and its contents were auctioned off the next year. The closing notice was sad, an auctioneer’s ad placed in local newspapers.

It read, “1329 Pennsylvania Avenue, located in Royal Theatre consisting of 20-foot concession booth, 3 freezers, pop corn maker, glass candy case, dry ice metal box ... soda bubbler, Coke case, carbonator ... Lee Zalis, auctioneer.”

This column initially misidentified Chick Webb as Ella Fitzgerald’s husband. He was her mentor.

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