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Old theater may join in black history movement

The Quonset hut on 22nd Street S is up for a historic designation. It's part of a plan to identify and restore places of significance.

By JON WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 23, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- The drums rattled, the bugles screamed and the Sons of the Legion marched in the street as the Royal Theater opened 53 years ago with a packed house and a cowboy film called Panhandle.

The theater's coming was a major event. One of three African-American movie houses during the city's segregation era, the Royal was hailed in the newspapers as "an inspiration for the whole community."

Now home to the Southside Boys and Girls Club, the Quonset hut at 1011 22nd St. S remains a major element in the lore surrounding the street's long-ago status as the black community's queen thoroughfare.

The city government is contemplating a local historic designation for the building that once packed in 700 people at a time to see westerns, an occasional first-run film and talent shows once or twice weekly. The City Council gave the idea first approval Thursday, and a public hearing is scheduled Oct. 4.

The designation would mean the owners could get state grants for improvements. They also would have to get special permission before significantly altering the outside of the building.

Everyone has a story about the Royal.

Homer Jordan, president of the 22nd Street S Redevelopment Corp., recalls seeing the "westerns and karate movies" as a child.

"I remember times I used to pick up bottle caps just to get in," said Jordan, 42. Youngsters could win admission by bringing in enough caps from Whistle grape, orange or strawberry soft drinks.

Usual admission in the theater's early days was 40 cents for adults, 14 cents for kids.

Talent shows might bring out whole families.

When Askia Aquil attended during the 1960s, James Brown was a major rhythm-and-blues entertainer.

"Inevitably, at every show, you'd have someone do a James Brown number like, Please, Please, Please," said Aquil, 54, who is director of the Neighborhood Housing Services.

And Jackie Wilson's Lonely Tear Drops, a dramatic song with plenty of room for histrionics.

"My heart is crying, crying lonely teardrops ... (the performer's) hand would go up to the face and the mouth. I can still recall all the gestures," Aquil said.

The proposed historic designation has the potential to help 22nd Street's comeback, recently given a boost when state government named it a Main Street project, said Rick Smith, a city historic preservation planner.

"It's part and parcel of the revival," Smith said.

If approved, the Royal site would join the Manhattan Casino building, Dr. Robert Swain's office and apartments, and the Seaboard Coast Line depot as local historic sites on 22nd Street S, Smith said.

The Royal closed in 1966, about the time integration began opening St. Petersburg's previously all-white theaters to African-Americans. Other theaters reserved for blacks were the Harlem in the 1000 block of Third Avenue S, a site now covered by the Tropicana Field parking lot; and the Park, 1800 18th Ave. S, a white theater until about 1960, when it was open to blacks until its 1981 closure.

The old Royal's signature Quonset design is considered unusual in St. Petersburg, a city staff report says. Other examples are the old Soft Water Laundry at 22nd Street S and Fifth Avenue and the Neeld-Gordon garden center, 1258 19th St. N. Quonsets, originally used to house returning war veterans, were viewed as economical to design and construct.

Businessmen Bill Boardman and Horace Williams Jr. were the Royal's first owners. Williams, who later became a City Council member, was a great-grandson of John C. Williams, considered one of St. Petersburg's founders.

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