The Royal Theater, called “American’s Finest Colored Photoplay House”, upon its 1920 opening, was the first black-run theater in the city. The theater became a beacon for the African-American entertainment sector on South Street. Patrons regularly filled the theater’s 1,200 seats to see acts like Fats Waller and Bessie Smith. Patrons also loved the films at the Royal, which included films shot at local Colored Pictures Film Corporation. The first staff of the theater went on to become the nucleus of the Negro Motion Pictures Operators Union. The community was closely tied to the theater. Neighborhood 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 patronized other entertainment venues, decimated the Royal’s neighborhood and attendance. The Royal closed its doors in 1970. The Royal deteriorated quickly: trees sprouted from its masonry and moisture destroyed the interior. Urban decay took hold of the neighborhood by the 1980s, with drugs and empty lots becoming staples of the neighborhood. By the early 1990s, the Royal was up for demolition. But the demolition request spurred new interest in the Royal: but for years, an owner was hard to come by. Finally, by 2000, native Philadelphian Kenny Gamble purchased the theater; Gamble hopes to rehabilitate it. Meanwhile, the resurgent neighborhood has new small businesses and homeowners. Perhaps the Royal’s resurgence will follow.
Research: Sarah L. Hunter
Site Photos: Joseph E.B. Elliott
The variety of performances that characterized the Royal Theater on South Street for 50 years – music, movies, talent shows, and radio broadcasts – gives rise to an original piece of music that celebrates the ragtime, vaudeville, jazz, and cinema history of this landmark. The live performance by world-class musicians is paired with a film and video installation that enables visitors to imagine how the now empty shell of a building once served as heartbeat of the neighborhood and community of Philadelphia’s African American performers.
Both evenings feature a film by Anri Sala and film/video installation by Laurie Olinder & Bill Morrison, as well as an original Todd Reynolds composition performed by musicans from Network for New Music.
Co-Producer: Network for New Music
Network for New Music would like to thank the following for their support: the Argosy Contemporary Music Fund, the Daniel Dietrich Foundation, William Penn Foundation, Independence Foundation, Aaron Copland Fund, Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia, Presser Foundation, Drumcliff Foundation, the Marshall Reynolds Trust, and the Philadelphia Cultural Fund. This project is also supported by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency, through its regional arts funding partnership, Pennsylvania Partners in the Arts (PPA). State government funding for the arts depends upon an annual appropriation by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and support from the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. PPA is administered in this region by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. This project has been funded by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, through the Philadelphia Music Project.
Anri Sala was born in 1974, and lives and works in Berlin. He has had solo exhibitions in a number of international institutions including Museé de la Ville, Paris; Kunsthalle, Vienna; The Art Institute of Chicago; and Museum Boijmans, Rotterdam. Nominated for the prestigious Hugo Boss Prize (2002), and awarded the Golden Lion for the Young Artist Prize at the Venice Biennale (2001), Anri Sala has taken part in many collective exhibitions and biennials worldwide including three participations in the Venice Biennale (1999, 2001 and 2003), in addition to invitations to the Istanbul Biennial (2003), the Berlin Biennale (2001) and Manifesta (2000). He was short listed for the Preis2005 of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin (with John Bock, Monica Bonvicini and Angela Bulloch).
Ars Nova Workshop
Bill Morrison’s films have been screened at festivals, museums and concert halls worldwide, including the Sundance Film Festival, the Tate Modern, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall. He has collaborated with numerous renowned composers, including John Adams, Gavin Bryars, Dave Douglas, Richard Einhorn, Bill Frisell, Michael Gordon, Henryk Gorecki, Vijay Iyer, David Lang, Harry Partch, Steve Reich, Todd Reynolds, and Julia Wolfe. “Decasia”, his feature length collaboration with composer Michael Gordon, is described by J. Hoberman of the Village Voice as “the most widely acclaimed American avant-garde film of the fin-de-siècle.” Morrison is a Guggenheim fellow and has received the Alpert Award. As a projection designer, his work with Ridge Theater has been recognized with two Bessie awards and an Obie award. Recent work includes the world premiere of Wallace Shawn’s “Grasses of a Thousand Colors” at the Royal Court in London.
A powerful and vastly underrated avant-garde alto saxophonist, Jemeel Moondoc blended the free-form melodic thought of Ornette Coleman and the sharp edge of Jackie McLean or Charles Tyler with the sort of ferocious “energy playing” usually reserved for tenor saxophonists. Moondoc began playing piano as a child, studied clarinet and flute, and settled on alto saxophone around age 16; he subsequently studied with Cecil Taylor at various colleges in the early 1970s. In 1972, he moved to New York, where he formed Ensemble Muntu with trumpeter Roy Campbell, bassist William Parker, and drummer Rashid Baker. The group recorded for its own Muntu label in the late ’70s, and Moondoc also led solo sessions for labels like Soul Note and Cadence through the early ’80s. In 1996, Moondoc recorded his first albums in 11 years: the studio trio date Tri-P-Let and the live Fire in the Valley (performed at the festival of the same name). 1998 brought New World Pygmies, a duo with William Parker from that year’s Fire in the Valley. Next, Moondoc revived his Jus Grew Orchestra as a ten-piece ensemble and performed a set of Massachusetts concerts documented on 2001’s Spirit House.
Laurie Olinder (Projection/Set Designer, Ridge Theater) is an award winning visual designer for Ridge Theater. Her work can be seen in theater, films, and paintings. She was the still projection designer for Gotham At Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall and created still projections for Decasia at St. Ann’s warehouse in September 2004. Other work includes the BAM/Brooklyn Philharmonic/Ridge Theater production of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer. She has also made a film for The New Yorkers, a visual concert by Bang on a Can for the 2003 Next Wave festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She is the Art Designer for the Annual HOWL! Festival organized by The Federation of East Village Artists, and has been the recipient of a 2003 Bessie Award for Jennie Richee, a 2001 NYFA Fellowship, a MacDowell Fellow, and in 1998 received an Eliot Norton Award for outstanding design in the theater for her work at The American Repertory Theater.
As a young musician, Marshall Allen (b.1924) performed with pianist Art Simmons, Don Byas and James Moody before enrolling in the Paris Conservatory of Music. After relocating to Chicago, Allen became a pupil of Sun Ra, subsequently joining his Arkestra in 1958 and leading Sun Ra’s formidable reed section for the next 40 years (a role akin to the position Johnny Hodges held in the Duke Ellington Orchestra). Marshall, along with John Gilmore, June Tyson and James Jacson, lived, rehearsed, toured and recorded with Sun Ra almost exclusively for much of Ra’s musical career. As a member of the Arkestra, Marshall Allen pioneered the Free Jazz movement of the early sixties and had a remarkable influence on most of the leading voices in the avant-garde. He is featured on over 200 Sun Ra recordings. Allen assumed the position of maestro in 1995, following the ascensions of Sun Ra 1993 and John Gilmore in 1995. Like his mentor, Allen is committed to the study, research, and development of Sun Ra’s musical precepts.
Todd Reynolds, composer, conductor, arranger and violinist, is a longtime member of Bang On A Can, Steve Reich and Musicians and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project. His commitment to genre-bending and technology-driven innovation in music has produced innumerable collaborations with artists that regularly cross musical and disciplinary boundaries, regularly placing him in venues from clubs to concert halls around the world. He has appeared and/or recorded with such artists as Anthony Braxton, Uri Caine, John Cale, Steve Coleman, Joe Jackson, Dave Liebman, Yo-Yo Ma, Graham Nash, Greg Osby, Steve Reich, Marcus Roberts and Todd Rundgren, and has commissioned and premiered countless numbers of new works by America’s most compelling composers, including John King, Phil Kline, Michael Gordon, Neil Rolnick, Julia Wolfe, David Lang, Evan Ziporyn and Randall Wolff.