ST. PETERSBURG – When it opened in 1948, the Royal Theater became the second theater in town that catered solely to the black community during the Jim Crow era.
The occasion was so momentous that “they had a big celebration, with a parade right down 22nd Street S.,” said Jon Wilson, a journalist and historian who has co-authored two books on St. Petersburg’s African-American neighborhoods.
The theater’s premiere featured a showing of a B-rated Western titled “Panhandle,” which offered the “most action-packed fight sequence ever seen on film,” said Wilson.
When equal rights became the law of the land in the mid-1960s, however, the Royal became a victim of progress.
Black residents could now live, shop, attend school and see movies in once-forbidden parts of the city. The Royal closed in 1966, one of several well-known venues along 22nd Street S. – “the Deuces” – that shut their doors.
In recent years, the Royal has been home of the Boys and Girls Club. Its director, Kayren Lovett, says the club is a fitting tenant for the historic building – long a symbol of the community along the once-vibrant Deuces – and she wants to help ensure that it stays that way.
“Our main objective is to provide hope and opportunity,” said Lovett, 39, who has worked for the Boys and Girls Club of the Suncoast for two decades, the last two years at the Royal.
“The Royal is actually one of the most unique facilities I’ve been in, not only from the structure of it, but from the programming provided here,” she said.
The structure at 1011 22nd St. S. is, in fact, special. It is one of the few so-called “Quonset huts” remaining in the city, and it was designated a historic landmark by the City Council in 2001.
The building style, which had its origins in England in World War I, got its name from a World War II production facility near Quonset, R.I. The huts were simple, inexpensive and portable, and they were widely used as barracks, warehouses and hospitals during the war.
In the postwar years, architects used the same elements in designing public buildings like churches and theaters. That was apparently the case with the Royal.
The theater, which hosted talent shows as well as movies, became the second theater to serve all-black audiences. The other, the Harlem, operated from about 1937 to the mid-1950s at 1017 Third Ave. S. in the Gas Plant neighborhood, which was supplanted when Tropicana Field was built in the 1980s.
One of the downtown theaters, the La Plaza, admitted black customers, but they had a separate box office and entrance and had to sit in the balcony.
(Nearly three decades earlier, in 1921, a movie house for blacks called the Dream Theater opened on Ninth Street S. It closed after it was bombed – apparently by white residents who were part of a push to get blacks out of the area, according to Wilson.)
After the Royal Theater closed in 1966, the building housed a laundromat for a time and also stood vacant, according to city records. In 1975, it became a youth center, and in 1977 it was sold to the Boys and Girls Club.
In 2004, three years after it was designated a historic site by the city, the Royal got a $1.2 million renovation that restored some of its previous glory. The renovation was financed by the city, with additional funds from philanthropist Bill Edwards.
Once a single, open hall that held 700 seats, the Royal got separate rooms in the renovation – classrooms, computer rooms, a state-of-the-art recording studio, offices, and a stage area for productions.
The arching, white ceiling towers over the rooms, creating a sense of openness while still retaining its charm.
The Royal Theater Arts Academy is one of seven Boys & Girls Clubs in Pinellas County. For the busy summer season, the Royal has 60 children registered for its programming.
To Lovett, the programming at the Royal is as special as the architecture. She sees it as a venue to effect positive change in the community.
“For the kids to have a supportive relationship with caring adults, I think it makes a difference in the child’s life,” she said. “We are going in a great direction, helping the kids and the community that we serve.”
The Royal has programming year round, with summer the busiest time. Lovett wants to see continued growth in attendance and showcases throughout the year.
“I hear a lot that we’re one of the best-kept secrets in the area,” she said. “Hopefully the parents throughout the county will take advantage of the Boys and Girls Clubs.”
The spring and fall programming at the Royal were close to Lovett’s goals in attendance. She is counting on word-of-mouth to bring in more children.
“For the kids’ sake, I hope we grow beyond that secret,” she said.
Lovett herself is a product of the Boys and Girls Club. As a child, she attended clubs in Sarasota, where her grandmother lived, and in Tampa, where she grew up. She worked for Boys and Girls Club chapters in Hillsborough County for 18 years before moving to the Royal.
Ian MacCallum is a reporter in the Neighborhood News Bureau at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org