The Royal Theatre Marquee Monument Pennsylvania Avenue: The Street of Royalty, a Black Entertainment Wellspring
Ellington, Armstrong and others
Royal Theatre, ca. 1949
Built as the Douglas in 1921, the theatre was renamed the Royal Theatre in 1926. With seating for more than 1,000, it became Pennsylvania Avenue’s biggest entertainment jewel but sadly was demolished in 1971. According to journalist James “Biddy” Wood, the Royal Theatre was “a citadel for the finest black entertainers, who could not showcase their exceptional talents elsewhere in Jim Crow America.” The Afro-American Newspaper, 1992
All of the biggest stars in black entertainment, including those in jazz and blues, performed at the Royal including greats such as Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Redd Foxx as well as the first integrated all-female band the Sweethearts of Rhythm: a 40-piece band that toured with Count Basie and featured some of the best female musicians in the world. A “must play” venue for African American “stars” – Pearl Bailey debuted as a lead singer for the Sunset Royal Band here as did comics such as Moms Mabley and Slappy White. Later groups such as the Platters, Temptations and Supremes played the Royal. Boxer Jack Johnson gave a boxing exhibition on stage, and local groups followed the headliners. You could hear vocals from the Clovers of Washington, D.C., the Cardinals, Orioles,
Royallettes and Swallows of Baltimore, and the Marylanders of Annapolis. The MidNighters and Drifters were also Royal regulars. The Orioles, who directly shaped contemporary music, began their careers signing on street corners of Pennsylvania Avenue and ended up changing the face of R&B in America.
Baltimore City’s first motion picture featuring an all black cast, The Scar of Shame, was shown at the Royal in 1929. It was produced by The Colored Players Film Corporation of Philadelphia and is one of the earliest examples of films with a black cast produced for black audiences.
Ritz and glitz day and night
Lively, world-renown entertainment venues lined the Avenue including, the Ritz, Club Casino, Sphinx, Comedy Club, Gamby’s, and The Avenue Café. Comedy Club manager Ollie Wise, and owner Ike Dixon helped the Avenue evolve into a twenty-four hour attraction, with daytime shopping and professional services, and nighttime clubs, theatres and restaurants. Pennsylvania Avenue was black Baltimore’s “downtown,” its “Broadway,” featuring extravaganzas such as the Cadillac Parade, the Easter Parade and many other events extraordinaire.
Jazz greats abound along The Avenue
Old West Baltimore nurtured some of America’s most important jazz musicians. Elmer Snowden, Cab Calloway, and Billie Holiday called this area home. Local performers with loyal followings, such as Pee Wee Wooten, lit up stages on the Avenue, alongside better-known players such as Thomas W. “Fats” Waller. Headlining the Royal during the ‘30s, Waller was best known for his “Ain’t Misbehavin,” and “Honeysuckle Rose.” Anne Brown, a Baltimore-born soprano who starred as the original Bess in George Gershwin’s folk opera Porgy and Bess, was the first black vocalist admitted to New York City’s famed Juilliard School of Music. Other Baltimore greats such as pianist Eubie Blake, and percussionist “extraordinaire” Chick Webb played the Avenue, identifying Baltimore as an important jazz town. In Cab Calloway’s autobiography, Minnie the Moocher and Me, he describes the early 1920s Regent Theatre’s acts: “The costumes were always out of sight, colorful and flamboyant, and the guys in the band always dressed formally, in black tuxedos with white shirts and bow ties. It was something to see.”