The Royal Theater

Royal Theater, 1300 block Pennsylvania Avenue, late 1920s, photographer unknown
Photo courtesy of Baltimore City Life Museums (Peale Museum)

(The following text is from Karen Olsen's "Old West Baltimore: Segregation, African-American Culture, and the Struggle for Equality," Chapter Four in The Baltimore Book: New Views of Local History, eds. Elizabeth Fee, Linda Shopes, and Linda Zeidman (Philadelphia:Temple University Press, 1991) pp 65-66.

At our third stop, imagine that the playground adjoining the Robert C. Marshall Recreation Center in the 1300 block of Pennsylvania Avenue is a theater with blazing neon signs advertizing the jazz greats of the 1930s and 1940s and drawing hundreds of excited patrons. In its heyday, Pennsylvania Avenue was a shopping center for old West Baltimore residents by day. At night, the street came alive as an entertainment mecca, featuring clubs, music, dancing, and -- most important -- the Royal.

Built in 1921, the Royal Theater sat nearly 1,400 people. But it was in the late 1930s and just after World War II that the Royal enjoyed its best years. A name band was billed every week, along with the country's top African-American singers and comedians.

The Royal owed much of its success to segregation because African-American spectators and entertainers were barred from white theaters. African-American performers traveled the "chitlins circuit," a national network of white-owned but black patronized vaudville and movie houses that included the Apollo in New York, the Howard in Washington, D.C., and the Royal in Baltimore. All the black jazz greats -- Fats Waller, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong -- played exclusively at the Royal when they were in Baltimore. Singers Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday were regulars at the Royal, and Pearl Bailey got her start there as a chorus girl.

A show at the Royal typically included a movie, a chorus line, acrobats, tumblers, an exotic dancer, and a team of comedians to augment the big-band performance. Comedians Moms Mabley and Pigmeat Marcum played the Royal to capacity crowds. One spectator remembers "an audience of 2,000 folks in the old Royal literally out of their seats and in the aisles.... To generate that kind of laughter is true power."

For over 30 years, the Royal was a source of cultural pride among old Baltimore residents. In its heyday, it was remembered as "the most beautiful place you ever want to find," the place where "everything was jumpin'." A job at the Royal was "a prestige thing," whether you were an usherette or a musician. "You knew you were something if your date took you to the Royal; you wore your best outfit," an Old West Baltimore resident remembers.

The Royal Theater was the first of several "good time" spots visited on "The Avenue." After the show, the audience stopped at Mannheimer's on Eutaw Street for a bite to eat, then drifted back to the Strand Ballroom or the Albert Hallon Pennsylvania Avenue to dance or listen to "cutting contests between visiting musicians who tried to outdo each other with improvisations."

In the 1930s and 1940s, whites flocked to Pennsylvania Avenue to hear the pioneers of jazz -- men and women who were making musical history, who were in great demand, but who could not perform anywhere in Baltimore except the Royal because of the restrictions of racial segregation.

The Eradication of Jim Crow laws in the 1950s and 1960s, along with the advent of television, the construction of the Civic Center, and the decline of big bands, made the Royal Theater obsolete. The opening show in 1921 had been appropriately called "Rarin' to Go." By 1965, the Royal had stopped its live performances and was strictly a movie house. On July 21, 1970, the theater was formally closed with the double feature "Alley Cats" and "I Spit on Your Grave." The building was demolished in 1971 and replaced by a public school.

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