Once upon a time there was a section of Baltimore that was known as the chitterling circuit, but for many it was a pocketful of dreams on a red carpet scene. A time where cable, dvd, ipads, reality tv and social media was unheard of. A time when TV screens were black and white and color was based on your skin type. An era when downtown Baltimore was segregated or off limits if your skin tone was too dark. A time where there was no MTA or subway, but a street car #21 roaming what we call the Avenue.
Before it was known as the Avenue it was called Wagon Rd, then changed to Hookstown Rd and later changed again to Pennsylvannia Ave. Coined the mecca of black star power and entertainment Pennsylvannia Ave was the place to be. To be exact the year was 1921 and a local group of black businessmen opened the doors to the Douglas Theatre. The theatre began to struggle financially, so the owners reached out to its patrons and the community offering stock options for $5.00. Unsuccessful with there plan to save the theatre the men sold the building to a Jewish family in 1926 and was renamed the Royal Theatre.
From the top to the bottom of the Avenue it was never a curfew, but always a star studded affair. Everyday there were crowds of people walking the 23 blocks. Shopping, eating, dancing, gambling, hanging out and listening to live music at 1329 Pennsylvannia Ave. You could pay .50 cent to $1.00 to see the biggest stars in black entertainment like Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Dinah Washington, Dizzy Gillespie, Ethel Waters, Pearl Bailey, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Etta James, Duke Ellington and groups like the Temptations, Platters and Diana Ross and her Supremes. If the Royal was crowded you could put on your finest attire and travel 3 blocks up the street to the Regent Theatre which is now known as Shake n Bake to see the first black casted movie Scar of Shame or The Life of the Party. You may even catch the featured Photo Play and the ventriloquist act of the world famous black ventiloquist John W. Cooper.
If you needed laughter you could laugh with the comedy greats Redd Foxx, Slappy White and Moms Mabley who frequently performed at the Ike Dixon Comedy Club. If you weren’t in the mood to laugh you could shoot pool, gamble or bar hop at Club Casino, Gamby’s or the legendary Sphinx’s Club. After there performance it was common to see many of the stars mingling and signing autographs and the Prime Rib, The Avenue Bar, Alhambra Grill and the Sess Restaurant who was known for its smothered pork chops, waffles and kidney beans.
Today when you ride up or down the Avenue it is hard to believe that it was once an entertainment hot spot. Some people say the demise of the Baltimore Renaciance era and Pennsylvannia Ave as the main stem of black entertainment was due to the civil rights riots. Others say it was due to the change in the economy and crime, but 60 some odd years ago a place of beauty, dreams, talent and goodtimes became a buried jewel of Baltimore. A jewel that is rarely spoken of and is now 23 blocks of almost destroyed homes and empty businesses. Once a upon a time there was a pocketful of dreams on a red carpet scene.