IF YOU are going to talk about black history in Baltimore, you have got to talk about the Royal Theater. It was located for more than half a century at 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. Sadly, it is no more.
From its beginnings in 1920, the biggest names in black (and white, too) entertainment played the Royal. (Black entertainers were usually barred from playing white theaters.) The list of stars included Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Pearl Bailey, "Fats" Waller, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington, Nat "King" Cole, Ella Fitzgerald. Pearl Bailey got her start at the Royal -- as a chorus girl. Famous burlesque comedian Pigmeat Marcum played there, as did comedian "Moms" Mabley. To say nothing of white bands, including Tommy Dorsey, Charlie Barnet and Louis Prima.
From the size and the noise of the crowds milling outside the theater the night of Jan. 6, 1965, you knew something special was going on. It was: Count Basie was in performance! You couldn't buy a seat for money.
When the curtain went up, all you could hear was shouting, applause -- and the strains of Basie playing: "Sent for you yesterday, and here you come today." Basie went into "Jumpin' at the Woodside," and the kids started dancing in the aisles. And when Basie came on with his final number, "One O'Clock Jump," the house exploded.
Too soon the Basie show ended. The curtain came down and the applause died and the crowd left the theater and spilled out on Pennsylvania Avenue. The place grew dark and quiet -- until the next week, when another spectacular big band or vocalist would come to the Royal stage.
Tracy McCleary was the leader of the house band ("The Royal Men of Rhythm") that played for most of the Royal's stage shows from 1937 through 1968.
We have the word of Mr. McCleary that the last stage show at the Royal was Nov. 12, 1968. "I recall it very clearly," Mr. McCleary says. "It was the 'Jewel Box Review,' a very successful and popular Broadway show made up of female impersonators, 25 in all, beautifully costumed. The theater had been dark for about a year preceding this show, and so the house was packed for what patrons knew would be only a two-week run -- and probably the last show to play the Royal."
As early as the late 1940s and through the '50s, the Royal had been showing signs of fading. The theater was part of a black circuit, including the Apollo in New York and the Howard in Washington. But many of the stars stopped traveling the circuit, and television was coming in strong.
Mr. McCleary says, "In 1975, the whole place was knocked down to make room for the Upton renewal. (The old spot is now the Robert C. Marshall Recreation Center.) Renewal plans were supposed to have included a new Royal Theater, and they did, but a new Royal never came about. And I tell you, I really miss those times. There was nothing like them."