Lost City: The Regent Theater
The theaters, night clubs, and restaurants that once made Pennsylvania Avenue Baltimore’s center for African-American entertainment are today a receding memory. In the segregated Baltimore of the early to mid twentieth century, the Avenue was where African-Americans went to see the latest films, have a drink at one of the many nightclubs and bars, and hear the jazz of Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, and Cab Calloway, the comedy of Redd Fox and Slappy White, and the funk of James Brown. Most of the establishments were gone by the end of the 1970s, either occupied by new businesses, laying vacant, or demolished. A few soldiered on—the Sphinx Club, one of the last to go, closed its doors in 1992. The most famous venue on the Avenue, the Royal Theater, was one of the premier stops on the “chitlin’ circuit,” the chain of clubs and theaters running through the eastern and southern states featuring African-American entertainers. While the Royal may have been the best known theater on the Avenue, it wasn’t the largest—that designation would have to go to the Regent Theater.
The Regent Theater was from the start a family operation. On Jun 9, 1916, Louis Hornstein and his two sons, Simon and Isaac, opened the theater on the former site of a coal yard at 1629 Pennsylvania Avenue. Advertised as the “largest, coolest, best ventilated house in the city,” the theater was located in a one-story brick building designed by Baltimore architectural firm Sparklin & Childs. (1) For the next 50 years the Hornstein family owned and operated the Regent. The family later acquired the Lenox and the Diane theaters, also on Pennsylvania Avenue.
At the time of its opening, the Regent was the largest movie house in Baltimore, with a seating capacity of 500 and its own orchestra. The theater specialized in “high class-photo plays and Vaudeville.”(2) John W. Cooper, the first African-American ventriloquist on the largely white vaudeville circuit, was a bonus attraction on opening night. Billed as “the only colored ventriloquist in the world,” the “Black Napoleon of Ventriloquists,” and the “Polite Ventriloquist,” Cooper’s most famous routine, a barbershop skit, incorporated multiple dummies operated with the use of foot pedals and fishing line.
In 1920, the Hornsteins expanded the Regent’s auditorium with the purchase of lots south, extending the theater to 1619 Pennsylvania Avenue. The original building at 1629 was retained as the entrance. The theater now had a seating capacity of 2,250, with additional balcony seating.
Although the patrons of the establishments that lined Pennsylvania Avenue were predominantly African-American, the ownership of these businesses was almost entirely white. Within Baltimore’s African-American community, the Hornsteins were particularly well respected and the Regent was renowned for its “high class attractions and low prices.” Following the 1920 renovations, a reviewer for the Afro-American newspaper called the newly expanded theater a “legitimate playhouse where colored patrons would not be humiliated by the odious presence of … ’Mister James Crow.’”(3)
In 1925, Isaac Hornstein cancelled the planned exhibition of a series of films featuring heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey, after the champ made disparaging remarks about African-American contenders for his title and “proposed to prevent any colored contender from having a ‘look see’ at the heavyweight diadem.” Hornstein told a reporter from the Afro that the Regent played “to colored patrons, and I would certainly be insulting them should I play a picture featuring a man having the sentiment as expressed by Dempsey in the press. I stand unalterably by my original refusal, and you may say for me that this picture or no other that in any way offends our patrons will ever be flashed from this screen.” Other theaters in the city soon followed the Regent’s example.(4)
The Hornsteins set high standards for their theater, and expected their patrons do the same. Louis Hornstein was known to send movie goers home to change their clothes if they were not suitably attired. They also kept up with the latest advancements in film technology. In 1928 the Regent made the transition from silent to sound film when it became the second movie house in Baltimore, and the only African-American theater, to be equipped with the new Vitaphone sound system. An article in the Afro-American enthused that the Regent was “the only local house open to race trade that has contracted for this last word in motion picture entertainment.”(5) In 1953 the theater was equipped with both 3-D and the recently invented Cinemascope.
While the more celebrated Royal Theater was often the first and only stop in Baltimore for many of the top African-American entertainers of the era, the Regent—although primarily a movie theater—attracted its share of live performers, including Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, and Sidney Poitier. Baltimore’s own Cab Calloway and Eubie Blake (along with his songwriting partner Noble Sissle) performed at the Regent. Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world, gave a boxing exhibition at the theater.
In 1964, Henry Hornstein, the grandson of the original owner, leased the Regent and the family’s other theatrical properties to Jack Fruchtman, a Washington D.C. film exhibitor. Fruchtman’s company, JF Theatres, would eventually control some 50 movie theaters in Baltimore and the surrounding suburbs. If you name a theater in Baltimore, chances are that at one time or another, it was operated by Fruchtman. From now-departed theaters the Royal, the Avalon, the Mayfair, and the Rex to still operating movie houses like the Charles (formerly The Times) and the Rotunda Theater (which Fruchtman opened in 1967), Fruchtman left a large fingerprint on the city’s theatrical history.
Through the remainder of the 1960s and the early 1970s Fruchtman continued the operation of the Regent to apparent success. Film historian Robert Headley, in his 1974 book, Exit: A History of Movies in Baltimore, wrote that the Regent “was still going strong, and hopefully will be with us for many years to come.” But with the end of segregation in the 1960s, the era of Pennsylvania Avenue as Baltimore’s African-American entertainment mecca was coming to a close. Citywide, the neighborhood theater industry that had been entertaining film goers for over 60 years was dying a slow death, the result of white flight, escalating overhead costs, and the proliferation of suburban theaters. The unrest that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April of 1968 also kept many theater going patrons from the downtown area. According to Robert Headley, although actual physical damage to city theaters was minimal, the “psychic damage to the theater going public was terrible.” By the end of the 1970s, 114 Baltimore theaters had been closed down.(6)
Fruchtman began closing some of the least viable of his large fold of theaters earlier in the decade. In December of 1974 the Regent turned its lights on for the last time. At the time of its closing, the Regent was still the second largest movie theater in the city. For the remainder of the decade the property remained unoccupied, and in 1980 the theater was razed, joining the Royal, which had met the same fate three years earlier.
But the site at which one of Baltimore’s premier African-American theaters once stood remained tied to its entertainment past. In 1982, former Baltimore Colts wide receiver Glenn Doughty opened the Shake and Bake Family Fun Center on the former site of the Regent. Doughty—known in his playing days as “Shake and Bake,” based on his pregame mantra that the Colts were going to “shake up and cook” their opponents—purchased the vacant lot from the City for $1.00. With the backing of Mayor William Donald Shaefer, Doughty and his partners secured a nearly 5 million dollar loan from the city to build what the former Colt—who never reached the NFL championship game—called his “Super Bowl.”(7)
When the center first opened in 1982, it was an immediate success. In the first year over 10,000 people a week were enjoying themselves at the 70,000 square foot complex which housed a 40 lane bowling alley, a 22,000 square foot roller rink, a video game room, and a sporting goods store. One patron said that the center “was a really big change for the community… it keeps people from hanging on the street corners.” The complex also housed an automated bank teller, an advertising firm, and two fast food restaurants. Almost entirely under African-American ownership—the Afro called it “the first major black owned and operated facility of its kind in the country”—the complex proved to be a model for other cities, with mayors visiting it for inspiration on inner city revitalization projects.(8)
Within two years though, the center was struggling financially, unable to attract people from outside the neighborhood. In 1985, Doughty and his partners defaulted on their loan and the City took over the management of the center. Although the center has gone through tough times since then—in 1987, a former manager plead guilty to a charge that he stole nearly $80,000 while employed at the center—it is still in operation 30 years after first opening. The center continues to offer bowling, roller skating, and family fun. It also hosts practice sessions for the Harm City Homicides, Maryland’s first men’s Roller Derby team. The Shake and Bake Center was one of the earlier revitalization projects on Pennsylvania Avenue—more than three decades later, efforts to return the former cultural hub to at least a semblance of what it once was are still under way. (Damon Talbot)
1. Advertisement, The Baltimore Afro-American, June 24, 1916. Sparklin & Childs were also responsible for other theaters in the city, including the Rialto Theater on North Avenue.
2. Headley Jr, Robert Kirk, Exit: A History of Movies in Baltimore, (University Park, Md, Robert Kirk Headley, Jr., 1974), p. 116.
3. “Regent’s Gradual Rise to Fame,” The Baltimore Afro-American, October 27, 1928; Headley, Jr, Robert Kirk, Motion Picture Exhibition in Baltimore: An Illustrated History and Directory of Theaters, 1895-2004 (London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2006), p. 380.
4. “Regent Theater Owner Cancels Jack Dempsey Film,” The Baltimore Afro-American, February 7, 1925.
5. “Regent Theater gets Vitaphone: Local Playhouse on of Few in the Country,” The Baltimore Afro-American, April 7, 1928.
6. Headley Jr, Robert Kirk, Exit: A History of Movies in Baltimore, (University Park, Md, Robert Kirk Headley, Jr., 1974), p. 116; Headley, Jr, Robert Kirk, Motion Picture Exhibition in Baltimore: An Illustrated History and Directory of Theaters, 1895-2004 (London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2006), p. 167.
7. Siegel, Eric, “Shake & Bake: Wide Receiver to entrepeneur, Doughty still meets challenges,” The Baltimore Sun, April 25, 1982.
8. Siegel, Eric, “Shake & Bake: Saturday Night street-corner rival,” The Baltimore Sun, November 4, 1982; Brown, Johanne, “Shake and Bake Grand Opening: The Realization of a Dream,” The Baltimore Afro-American, October 19, 1982; Gite, Lloyd, “Shaking and Baking in Baltimore,” Black Enterprise, February 1984.
Sources and Further Reading:
Advertisement, The Baltimore Afro-American, June 24, 1916
Headley Jr, Robert Kirk, Exit: A History of Movies in Baltimore, (University Park, Md, Robert Kirk Headley, Jr., 1974)
Headley, Jr, Robert Kirk, Motion Picture Exhibition in Baltimore: An Illustrated History and Directory of Theaters, 1895-2004 (London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2006).
“Other Houses Cancel Dempsey Films: Movie Theatres Follow Regent’s Lead,” The Baltimore Afro-American, February 21, 1925.
The Passano – O’Neill Files, Pennsylvania Avenue (1619-1629)
“Regent’s Gradual Rise to Fame,” The Baltimore Afro-American, October 27, 1928.
“Regent Theater gets Vitaphone: Local Playhouse on of Few in the Country,” The Baltimore Afro-American, April 7, 1928.
“Regent Theater Owner Cancels Jack Dempsey Film,” The Baltimore Afro-American, February 7, 1925.
Siegel, Eric, “Shake & Bake: Saturday Night street-corner rival,” The Baltimore Sun, November 4, 1982.
Siegel, Eric, “Shake & Bake: Wide Receiver to entrepeneur, Doughty still meets challenges,” The Baltimore Sun, April 25, 1982.
“3-D Cinemascope to Bring Crowds to Movies,” The Baltimore Afro-American, April 18, 1953.