Philly’s Royal Theater is part of City Council member Kenyatta Johnson’s corruption trial. Here’s what you need to know.

With the federal corruption trial of City Council member Kenyatta Johnson underway, jurors will hear about the royal theater as prosecutors claim Johnson pushed for a rezoning at the South Street site for his own financial gain.

The Royal, as it is often called, was a cultural center for black Philadelphians throughout the 20th century. Long closed, it was demolished in 2017 to make way for a housing development on the west side of South Street.

But what exactly is the Royal, and why is it so important in this case? Here’s what you need to know:

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 Theatre. It opened in 1920 on the 1500 block of South Street, serving as a movie theater for black Philadelphians.

“My father opened the first black movie theater in Philadelphia. In the 1930s, black people were not allowed to go to the movies with white people, and my father started one of the first theaters built in black neighborhoods for blacks,” David Wax, son of Morris, told The Inquirer in 1987. The Wax family is still involved in cinema today under the Reel Cinemas banner, which has cinemas in Narberth and Lancaster.

Apparently built by a black contractor, the theater also employed all-black staff who formed the Colored Motion Picture Operators Union. At 9,600 square feet and 1,125 seats, the theater has for years screened first-run films, especially those featuring black stars such as Paul Robeson.

The theater became a venue for live entertainment, attracting Bessie Smith, Pearl Bailey and Fats Waller, whose portraits featured on colorful murals that once decorated its facade. And the Royal welcomed Parisian tailors’ children’s hour radio show, which aired in the 1930s and 1950s on WPEN, and served as the starting point for the likes of jazz drummer Bobby Durham and Billy Paul of “Me and Mrs. Jones” fame.

The Royal eventually became “the epicenter of African-American culture” in the city, The Inquirer reported in 2000, after it closed. Late Inquirer columnist and editor Acel Moore, for example, noted that before the advent of television, and because of discrimination and segregation, places like the Royal were “the cultural focal points and social aspects of many black neighborhoods”. As a result, he wrote, the Royal was “much more than a cinema”.

By the 1960s, the Royal’s audience was dwindling and the business was in decline. Civil rights legislation allowed black Americans to see movies where they wanted — and to buy property in areas where they previously couldn’t live. This latter factor, The Inquirer reported in 1993, impacted the residential part of South Street West, with “white flight”, or the migration of white residents out of town, driving down demand and leaving abandoned properties.

Additionally, plans for a Crosstown Freeway along South Street from Schuylkill to Delaware have taken their toll. Its construction would have required the demolition of South and Bainbridge streets, and as plans progressed many existing businesses moved out. The plan was abandoned in the early 1970s, but the damage to the area was done. Had it been successful, The Inquirer reported in 2000, it would have displaced around 6,500 “mostly poor” people.

The Royal closed permanently in 1970. We were unable to find any coverage of its closure in The Inquirer or Daily News.

The Royal sat in limbo for five years before being sold in a Sheriff’s Sale to The Godfrey Corp., under Chairman Michael Singer. He bought the Royal in 1975 for $13,700 and the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

The Royal remained 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 band sold it to Universal Companies, an organization founded by famed Philadelphia musician Kenny Gamble, for $300,000.

Gamble had big plans for the Royal, saying he hoped to create an “economic 6pm district” with the theater at the centre. There, he says, you’ll find “an entertainment center that will provide the best live music possible.” He planned shops, restaurants and a return to his former glory. The city’s Department of Commerce even donated $330,000 to help revive the neighborhood.

But by 2011, The Inquirer reported, he had become “another scuffed gem in Gamble’s South Philadelphia empire.”

Efforts to sell the property came to naught due to buyers’ doubts about zoning restrictions. Its condition deteriorated so badly that in 2013 a neighbor sought to strip Universal’s property under a state law for derelict and abandoned properties.

In 2013, another plan was launched which involved preserving the facade of the Royal, the demolition of the rest and the construction apartments, shops and car parks. The following year, Dranoff Properties became involved, and in 2015 the Historical Commission approved plans to demolish the setting.

But in 2016, after the city council approved a zoning change for the Johnson-sponsored property, Universal sold it to developer Robert Roskamp for $3.7 million, about 15 times what Universal paid in 2000. A 2017 Inquirer article states that Roskamp partnered with developer Ori Feibush to re-develop the Royal. At the time of its demolition, the Royal had been vacant for nearly half a century. Its facade has been preserved.

Johnson District includes the former site of the Royal Theatre, and in 2014 he introduced a bill to change zoning restrictions to accommodate Universal’s development plans. He crossed the city council, Thank you to the Philadelphia tradition of counselor prerogative.

Prosecutors allege Universal hired Johnson’s wife, Dawn Chavous, as a consultant for the operation of its charter school — a job they say she did very little work for — then snuck off. turned to Johnson to have the site rezoned. Chavous’ job paid $66,750, which prosecutors say 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 as a result of their relationship with Universal. Rahim Islam and Shahied Dawan, executives of the company, are accused of bribing Johnson and Chavous to help them manage real estate in South Philadelphia. One of them is the Royal.

Johnson and Chavous’ Lawyers say there is no evidence that Chavous’ contract with Universal was based on Johnson’s ability to influence city officials.

If convicted, Johnson and Chavous face up to 20 years in prison. They pleaded not guilty.

In addition to apartments and houses, the property now houses Rex at the Royal, a Southern restaurant owned by 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 black Southern chefs who moved to Philadelphia a century ago during the Great Migration.”

“It is a fascinating and compelling concept that it would come to life on the site of the historically significant Theater Royal,” LaBan wrote.