Curtain to rise again at historic theater
By JON WILSON, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- Back in the day, entire families showed up for Royal Theater talent shows. Singing was the thing. Someone was certain to belt out James Brown's Please, Please, Please or Jackie Wilson's sorrowful Lonely Teardrops. For prizes, judges handed out tickets to the picture show.
A movie house, song-and-dance venue or kids' club for 55 years, the Quonset-style building at 1011 22nd St. S will enter a new era in 2003.
The most extensive renovation in its history is expected to turn the community landmark into a strong 22nd Street revival element and re-establish it as a neighborhood performance venue. A $389,000 city grant is financing the job.
The Southside branch of the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Suncoast will continue to run its after-school programs, focusing on sports and education. Enhanced class and computer space are among the planned improvements.
But Carl Lavender, club director, has more in mind.
"It's going to be a remodeled community art center to capture all of the new entertainment and cultural buzz happening around Midtown and 22nd Street," Lavender said.
"What I'm trying to do with the Royal Theater, it becomes the resident company for what's happening in Midtown." A curtained stage, dressing rooms, a music room and a recording studio are in the works. New lighting will enhance the effect. Lavender said a "mini" auditorium will seat about 125.
"It's not a stage for a 60-voice ensemble, but a 16-voice ensemble," he said. "I can see maybe a Sunday gospel brunch. A tribute to Billie Holiday."
"After the Manhattan Casino performance, what happens next? It has to continue. Hopefully, the Royal Theater can capture that energy," Lavender said, referring to the upcoming stage performance about the famous 22nd Street nightclub and music hall.
Like the Manhattan, the Royal Theater building has been a designated a local historic landmark by the City Council.
It opened in 1948 as a theater for African-Americans, its owners white St. Petersburg businessmen Bill Boardman and Horace Williams Jr. Williams was the grandson of a city founder and later became a City Council member. A drum-and-bugle corps marched in the street and a packed house saw the first movie, a B-grade western titled Panhandle.
Charles Payne, now the Bartlett Park neighborhood president, was 13 years old. He and his friends helped unload the theater's chairs and set them up inside for opening day.
Payne said he, his sisters and a cousin performed often at the talent shows. The Sunbeam Quartet sang gospel and rock 'n' roll, Payne said, but its favorite was the romantic Blue Moon.
"One week we'd win first prize, the next week second," Payne said.
As integration began opening downtown theaters to African-Americans, the Royal's patronage dwindled. It closed in 1966 and remained empty for several years before reopening as a boys club -- later adding girls to its membership.
The club continued to attract youngsters, even when the Jordan Park public housing project temporarily closed so it could be rebuilt.
Work on the club's renovations should begin this spring and finish late this year, said Kevin Bessolo, whose Bessolo Design Group is in charge of the job.
An upgraded air conditioning system will be among the more popular new features. Restrooms are being redone, wall lights will illuminate the entire building and new insulation will keep temperatures stable.
Offices currently are lined up on one side of the club. The new ones will be built up high, in the building's front where the theater's projection room used to be. It will give supervisors a view of the entire interior, a convenience they don't have now.
Low walls will define classrooms in the middle of the building.
"I didn't want to do something traditional, like a hall of rooms down the side," Bessolo said.
Outside, a marquee similar to the Royal's will be installed, but it will carry the Boys and Girls Club name.
Ticket and concession windows will be rebuilt and used for special events. Front doors will look like the originals with the diamond-pattern windows.
"We want to restate, revive the Royal Theater features. We're trying to bring them back to life," said Robin Matson, the Bessolo group's marketing director.
Envisioned as a community center, the club still will focus on youngsters. So young people were involved in the project's earliest stages, actually helping interview applicants for the designer's job.
"They asked questions during the interview and they weren't staged questions," Bessolo said. Among other queries, the kids asked Bessolo why he wanted to do the project and how he sees it impacting the community.
"They were really good questions," Bessolo said. "They made me step back and think about what I wanted to do."
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