Opened in 1920, the Royal Theater was advertised as “America’s Finest Colored Photoplay House.” The all-black staff formed the nucleus of the Colored Motion Picture Operators Union.
The 1,200-seat theater showed movies by African American film pioneer Oscar Micheaux. The small stage played host to luminaries such as Fats Waller, Bessie Smith, Pearl Bailey, Della Reese and Cab Calloway.
South Philly residents were the Royal’s most loyal patrons and participated in talent shows and radio broadcasts. Business owners received increased foot traffic after Royal shows. But by the 1960s, the threat of the construction of an expressway in the neighborhood (that never materialized) and civil rights legislation which allowed blacks to move freely and patronize other entertainment venues, decimated the Royal’s neighborhood and attendance.
The Royal closed its doors in 1970. It is listed on the Philadelphia Register (1976) and National Register of Historic Places (1980).
The Royal Theater and adjoining parcels were purchased by music mogul Kenny Gamble from the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia in 2000 for $250,000.
UPDATE: In 2016, Kenny Gamble’s Universal Companies sold the Royal Theater. The facade is all that remains of the historic landmark. It, too, would have been demolished but the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia holds an easement.