Located in Center City, Morton Casway’s Celebrity Room was popular in the 1940s. It played host to a number of jazz and blues greats, including Fats Waller, Mary Lou Williams and Art Tatum.
In the September 11, 1948 issue of Billboard magazine, it was reported that Casway and other Philadelphia club operators were “singing the blues.”
The nightspot’s booker, Nat Segall, “is the only prospect shopping around the center of town for a new spot. Segall, the former owner of the Downbeat, found his sweet spot. He moved on and became the booking agent for the legendary Showboat.
African American bankers E. C. Brown and Andrew Stevens opened the Dunbar Theater in 1919, with plans to offer refined entertainment. However, within two years, business floundered and Brown and Stevens sold the theater to John T. Gibson, the black owner of the more raucous Standard Theater on South Street.
Later during the Depression, Gibson was forced to sell the theater to white owners who renamed it the Lincoln Theater.
From the 1920s to 1940s, the 1600-seat theater hosted major performers such as Duke Ellington, Louise Beavers, Willie Bryant, Lena Horne, Don Redman, Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, Paul Robeson and Fats Waller.
The joint was jumping.
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.