Philly’s Royal Theater is part of the bribery trial of City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson. Here’s what you need to know.
Once a movie theater and live-entertainment venue, the Royal Theater now plays a role in Johnson's federal bribery trial. We explain the theater's history and why it's part of this case.
In the federal bribery retrial of City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, jurors will hear about the Royal Theater as prosecutors make the case that Johnson pushed for a zoning change at the South Street site for his own financial gain.
The Royal, as it’s often called, was a cultural hub for Black Philadelphians throughout the 20th century. Long closed, it was demolished in 2017 to make way for real estate development on the west side of South Street.
But what exactly is the Royal, and why is it so important in this case? Here is what you need to know:
Royal Theater beginnings
In 1919, brothers and developers Abraham and Morris Wax hired architect Frank Hahn — who would go on to design the Gershman Y and Warwick Hotel — to design the Royal Theater. It opened in 1920 on the 1500 block of South Street, serving as a movie theater for Black Philadelphians.
“My dad started the first Black movie theater in Philadelphia. Back in the 1930s, Black people weren’t allowed to go to the movies with white people, and my dad started one of the first theaters built in Black areas for Black people,” David Wax, Morris’ son, told The Inquirer in 1987. The Wax family is still involved in the movie business today under the Reel Cinemas banner, which owns theaters in Narberth and Lancaster.
Reportedly built by a Black contractor, the theater also employed an all-Black staff that formed the Colored Motion Picture Operators Union. At 9,600 square feet and 1,125 seats, the theater for years screened first-run movies, especially those featuring Black stars such as Paul Robeson.
The theater evolved into a live-entertainment venue, attracting Bessie Smith, Pearl Bailey, and Fats Waller, whose portraits were included on colorful murals that once decorated its facade. And the Royal hosted The Parisian Tailors’ Kiddie Hour radio broadcast, which aired in the 1930s and 1950s on WPEN, and served as a starting point for the likes of jazz drummer Bobby Durham and Billy Paul of “Me and Mrs. Jones” fame.
The Royal ultimately became “the epicenter of African American culture” in the city, The Inquirer reported in 2000, after it had closed. Late Inquirer columnist and editor Acel Moore, for example, noted that before the advent of television, and due to discrimination and segregation, places like the Royal were “the cultural and social focal points of many Black neighborhoods.” As a result, he wrote, the Royal was “far more than a movie theater.”
By the 1960s, the Royal’s audience was dwindling, and the business was in decline. Civil rights legislation allowed Black Americans to see movies wherever they chose — and buy properties in areas where they couldn’t previously live. The latter factor, The Inquirer reported in 1993, impacted the residential portion of South Street West, with “white flight,” or the migration of white residents out of the city, causing demand to drop and leaving properties abandoned.
Additionally, the plans for a Crosstown Expressway along South Street from the Schuylkill to the Delaware took a serious toll. Building it would have required the demolition of South and Bainbridge Streets, and as plans advanced, many existing businesses moved out. The plan was abandoned in the early 1970s, but the damage to the area was done. If it went through, The Inquirer reported in 2000, it would have displaced about 6,500 “mostly poor” people.
The Royal closed for good in 1970. We were unable to find coverage of its closure from The Inquirer or Daily News.
The Royal sat in limbo for five years before being sold at a sheriff’s sale to The Godfrey Corp., under the leadership of president Michael Singer. He purchased the Royal in 1975 for $13,700, and the building was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
The Royal continued to sit vacant until 1998, when the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia purchased it from Singer for $350,000 — $160,000 of which came from the city. Then, in 2000, the group sold it to Universal Companies, an organization founded by notable Philly musician Kenny Gamble, for $300,000.
Gamble had big plans for the Royal, saying that he hoped to create an “18-hour economic district” with the theater at the center. There, he said, you’d find “an entertainment facility that will have the best live music you can get.” He planned shopping, restaurants, and a return to its former glory. The city’s Commerce Department even kicked in $330,000 to help bring the area back to life.
But by 2011, The Inquirer reported, it had become “another scuffed jewel in Gamble’s South Philadelphia empire.”
Efforts to sell the property went nowhere due to buyers’ doubts about zoning restrictions. Its condition grew so bad that in 2013 a neighbor sought to strip Universal’s ownership under a state law for blighted and abandoned properties.
In 2013, another plan was pitched that involved preserving the Royal’s facade, demolishing of the rest of it, and building apartments, retail space, and parking spaces. The following year, Dranoff Properties got involved, and in 2015, the Historical Commission approved the cadre’s demolition plans.
But in 2016, after City Council approved a zoning change for the property sponsored by Johnson, Universal sold it to developer Robert Roskamp for a reported $3.7 million — roughly 15 times what Universal paid in 2000. A 2017 Inquirer article indicates that Roskamp joined forces with developer Ori Feibush to redevelop the Royal. By the time it was demolished, the Royal had stood vacant for nearly half a century. Its facade was preserved.
What’s this got to do with Kenyatta Johnson?
Johnson’s district includes the former Royal Theater site, and in 2014 he introduced a bill to change the zoning restrictions to allow Universal’s development plans. It sailed through City Council, thanks to Philadelphia’s tradition of councilmanic prerogative.
Prosecutors allege that Universal hired Johnson’s wife, Dawn Chavous, as a consultant for its charter school operation — a job for which they say she did very little work — and then turned to Johnson to get the site rezoned. Chavous’ job paid $66,750, which prosecutors allege amounted to a bribe in exchange for help with Universal properties.
Johnson and Chavous are now each charged with two counts of honest services fraud based on their relationship with Universal. Rahim Islam and Shahied Dawan, executives at the company, are accused of bribing Johnson and Chavous for assisting them with real estate holdings in South Philadelphia. One of them is the Royal.
Johnson and Chavous’ attorneys say there is no evidence that Chavous’ contract with Universal was predicated on Johnson’s ability to sway city officials.
If convicted, Johnson and Chavous could face up to 20 years in prison. They have pleaded not guilty.
What’s at the Royal Theater site now?
In addition to apartments and houses, the property today is most notably home to Rex at the Royal, a Southern restaurant from Café Ynez and Jet Wine Bar owners Jill Weber and Evan Malone. Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan reviewed it last year, writing that the pair “wanted to create a tribute to the Southern Black chefs who moved to Philadelphia a century ago during the Great Migration.”
“It’s a fascinating concept and compelling that it would come to life on the site of the historically significant Royal Theater,” LaBan wrote.