When the Royal Theater at 1524-1534 South Street opened its doors in 1920, it was called “America’s Finest Colored Photoplay House” and quickly became a center for African American arts and culture in Philadelphia. The Royal Theater patrons in the 1,200-seat theater could see performances by Bessie Smith, Fats Waller, and other prominent black artists and entertainers. When plans for a crosstown expressway were announced in the 1960s, the Royal and its surrounding neighborhood began to suffer, and as many of Philadelphia’s segregation laws were removed, black Philadelphians moved to and patronized other parts of the city and surrounding areas.
The Royal Theater closed in 1970 and deteriorated quickly as the neighborhood around the theater succumbed to urban decay in the 1980s. In the 1990s the theater was slated for destruction, which brought a renewed interest of many Philadelphians and the eventual purchase of the theater by Kenny Gamble, one of the founders of Philadelphia International Records. Despite this sale, the theater remained unused into the 2010s, until a new developer, Robert Roskamp, acquired the property in 2016 with plans to build apartments on the site while preserving the façade of the theater.