A marquee monument with metal silhouettes of jazz musicians adorning its brick pillars towers over the site of Pennsylvania Avenue’s demolished Royal Theatre. While the construction is clearly meant to honor the theater’s past, James Hamlin doesn’t see it as a celebration of the once-splendid venue.
“I was not involved in the tombstone,” Hamlin, who owns Avenue Bakery, says. “A lot of people see it as a tombstone to something that’s dead, and that should never die.”
What Hamlin is involved in — and in fact, leads — is the movement to entirely rebuild the Royal.
The Royal Theatre, which was torn down in 1971, was a member of the Chitlin’ Circuit, a group of American venues that served as meccas for African-American performers in the Jim Crow era. (Others included the Apollo in New York, Howard in D.C., Regal in Chicago and Earl in Philadelphia.) Opened in 1922 as the Douglass before being renamed under new ownership in 1925, the Royal hosted legendary musicians like Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole and others.
The entirety of Pennsylvania Avenue, in fact, was an entertainment destination for Baltimore’s African-American community and beyond. But even with movie theaters, nightclubs and restaurants lining the street, the Royal was its crown jewel.
The sparkling scene didn’t last long, however. A period of economic decline, spurred by white flight and accelerated by the 1968 riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., lead to the demise of the Royal and Pennsylvania Avenue at large. The theater was torn down, while the rest in the Chitlin’ Circuit remain standing.
“The powers that be, they decided this would no longer be the entertainment center for Baltimore,” Hamlin says. “The sad part is I think some of us could have stood in the way of that happening, but didn’t.”
For Hamlin, memorializing the Royal is not enough. It must be rebuilt, not just to capture its former glory, but to revitalize and bring hope to a community facing crime and economic abandonment. The theater, in fact, is just one component in his plan; he also hopes to include a jazz center, retail stores and housing.
Hamlin hopes to capitalize on the existing tourism attracted by the Pennsylvania Avenue Heritage Trail, which stops at sites like the marquee monument and Billie Holiday Park.
“We have to change that landscape,” Hamlin says of the struggling neighborhood. “Because like with anything else, you change the environment, you change the people.”
In 2005, he formed the Royal Theatre Community Heritage Corporation, a 501C3. Since then, he’s been able to add his vision for the mixed-use project to the Upton Master Plan, secure funding from both Governor Martin O’Malley and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake before they both left office, and spearhead the “One Brick At a Time” campaign, which allows donors to purchase a brick that will eventually be used to build the theater.
“It is just a grassroots campaign to get the average person to feel like, ‘I’m part of this,’” Hamlin says. “Because the original theater… was built by African Americans. One brick at a time.”
Raising money and awareness are the two weighty items on his to-do list. But Hamlin’s slowly building on his progress, thanks to an unlikely source: his bakery.
One of the only thriving businesses in the area, the Avenue isn’t just home to “Poppay’s rolls,” Hamlin’s signature item. Inside, a reel of Billie Holiday’s performances plays on loop on a TV screen in the corner. A giant civil rights-themed mural dominates the brick wall next to the parking lot, and to the side of the building is a courtyard, with a neatly kept garden and a collection of captioned mini murals commemorating the Royal and its history. There, Hamlin holds “The Courtyard Summer Music Series,” with free live jazz music, refreshments available for purchase and donation boxes at the ready, all to raise funds for the Royal.
The greatest challenge, though, is convincing the community that outcome is possible, even after over a decade of work.
“I know that this project is an uphill climb, but I’m committed to it,” Hamlin says. “And if I never get there, at least I can say that I’ve done everything I could to make it happen.”