Ask any black Baltimorean of a certain age about Pennsylvania Avenue at its prime – that is, any time between 1940s through the late 1960’s – and you will get the same reaction.
“Oh, yeah,” they’ll say. Then they will list the names: Billie Holiday, Redd Foxx, Aretha Franklin. The times you could stroll into a sandwich shop and get an autograph and a short chat with a famous Black star – the two of you pushed together because there were only so many placesthat either of you could be anyway.
What helped create this boom of talent and culture in the city was the fact that many of the performance halls, especially the Royal Theater, were part of the Chitlin Circuit – that is, places where Black artists could perform for Black audiences.
By all accounts, Pennsylvania Avenue was the place to be. Anybody and everybody could stop by the Royal, the Regent, or any number of popular eateries and music halls to eat, drink and be merry.
“Of course,” write Rosa Pryor-Trusty and Tonya Taliaferro in their book African-American Entertainment in Baltimore, “the Royal Theater, located at 1326 Pennsylvania Avenue, was the most popular theater in the city. The Regent, even larger than the Royal, was two blocks from the Royal and could accommodate 2,000 starry-eyed patrons.”
“When I was a child, you could go to the Royal Theater for 50 to 70 cents and you could see a news reel, a couple of cartoons, two movies, previews of coming attractions and you could stay all day,” said Sojourner Douglass College professor, Donna Hollie, who not only grew up there, but has done a significant amount of research about this time in Black history.
“I think that was our parents’ way of getting rid of us,” she said with a chuckle.”
“My mother remembers seeing Sarah Vaughan at her first appearance at the Royal Theater. She looked so unattractive that people laughed.” Hollie said that in those times, Baltimore crowds could be tough – throwing things at artists who they deemed subpar.
“Then she opened her mouth and a hush fell over the crowd.” she said.
Eleanor Janey, 79, knew the city’s musical scene well. That’s because she worked right there at The Tijuana, booking musical acts for the popular jazz club. She later worked at the Sportsman’s Lounge on Gwynn Oak Avenue.
Janey said both places attracted both local and nationally known musicians. She remembers that jazz singer Dinah Washington came to the Tijuana. And musicians sought out Sportsman whenever they came to town.
“All the people that had a name came to Baltimore,” she said. “If they came into do the Royal Theater they always stopped by.”
“Anybody in town that played an instrument. Doctors from Johns Hopkins came in. Anybody who played an instrument stopped in the Sportsman’s Lounge.”
She remembers a Pennsylvania Avenue that was alive with people, activity and, of course, music.
“Every block on the avenue had a bar in it and every block had music. You could go from one end to the other.”
She said she worked at the Sportsman for about 20 years. She got started in the entertainment business first as a dancer. How did she get her start booking acts?
“By me being friends with a lot of people and since I was a jolly person I got along with everyone,” Janey said.
After work ended at 2 a.m. when things wound down, the musicians, bar employees, theater employees – everyone – would meet up to eat and chat. First, at the segregated eateries that catered only to Blacks and then, after desegregation – at other places throughout the city.
And does she miss the good old days?
“I miss the good times,” she said. “You don’t have places like that anymore.”