Eastsiders call Broadway “The Avenue.” Hampdenites give that designation to 36th Street, known nationally for its Christmas lights extravaganza. But for the African-American community of Baltimore, especially those who live on the west side, “The Avenue” will always refer to Pennsylvania Avenue, a short stretch that has engendered long memories in the hearts of its constituents. A few blocks gracious enough to accommodate the sacred and the secular, the holy and the profane, the saints and the aints.
Circa 1959, while the grownups played on The Avenue, the teens made their way to New Albert Hall in the 1200 block. Clifton “Hines” Early was one of those teens. He was raised by his mother on Brewer Street, a side street near J.J. Brills market.
“We’d practice dance steps all week long getting ready for Friday night,” Hines said. “Fat Daddy was the DJ and everybody couldn’t wait to get there.”
But when they got grown enough, they put on the “glad rags” and hit the midnight show at the Royal Theater. Said Hines, “ the hottest spot in town. James Brown. Jackie Wilson. Ray Charles. Gene Chandler. Smoky Robinson…“and the list could have gone on and on.
“The place was always sold out. There were lines a block long waiting for the midnight show,” he said.
Hines always wore the latest styles, along with pointed toe shoes – some called them tiptoe blades – but was having none of the hottest hairdo – the Conk.
As for his date, Joan, now his wife of many years, “We’d put on our hoop skirts with crinolines to make them stand out, and the black and white saddle shoes with bobby socks.” Her favorites? “Jackie Wilson and Tommy Hunt.”
Hines said the girls screamed for Tommy Hunt like he was Frank Sinatra.
Block by block Hines remembered the landmarks – the churches, pool rooms, lunch rooms and restaurants. He didn’t remember Elder Ruffin’s restaurant with its giblet stew, but he did remember Covington’s, which hasn’t been closed that long.
“Mom’s Lunch Room – the best egg sandwiches in the world. Max’s Pool Room. The Casino Club. The Bamboo Lounge. The White Rice Inn. Northwest Police Station,” Hines added to his list of memories.
During the early years he might have encountered Rosa “Rambling Rose” Pryor-Trusty when young people met at the New Albert. “I was a dancer and I won lots of trophies jitterbug dancing,” she said. “Twirling on someone’s shoulders and being thrown between their legs.”
The same friends she had at church – Wayland Baptist – she had on The Avenue. “We met at the church to go to the Royal Theater.”
Although she went with the group, once inside, her concentration went to the stage.
“I watched every move,” said Rambling Rose, author, manager and writer of an AFRO column bearing her moniker. “From the time I hit the door, that’s all I was interested in. I liked to listen to the singers.”
She began to rattle off her own list, beginning with Tommy Hunt, with whom she still converses. “I just talked to him last week. ‘Lord, why did you make me human?’ That’s the song he’s most known for.”
The Shirelles, Chantelles, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, were others she named.
Pennsylvania Avenue was such a renowned venue that, for some time, the AFRO presented an entire column of that name penned by E.B. Rea. The column was a collection of news bits – the need for a trackless trolley, a new bartender on the street, a restaurant manager on vacation, church news and what was previewing at the Regent Theater.
Businesses thrived on The Avenue – The London Shop, Herbert’s and notably, Northwestern Pawn Shop that still operates today.
And there was always something to be bought right on the street, according to Rambling Rose. “There were cart vendors and shoe shine guys. People were selling jewelry and second hand clothes,” she said. “Hustlers were always selling something out of the pocket, you know. A lot of the stores were still White-owned.”
Disparate perspectives of The Avenue range from tales of prostitutes, numbers runners and drunks to elegant ladies in hats and white gloves who graced the likes of the Metropolitan Theater; ladies and gents in their Sunday go-to-meeting clothes attending Pennsylvania Avenue AMEZ Church, or going to the Carver Movie that was so classy that when it opened, they served tea.
Disagreements aside, none would want to miss an opportunity for celebration and reunion, which is what planners have in mind for Labor Day weekend with the first Pennsylvania Avenue Homecoming Festival. It’s a time to “celebrate, educate and participate” in “Our Heritage, Our Legacy.”
For vendor and participation information, visit www.royaltchc.com.