The classic repertory house returns with opening of Orpheum Cinema

November 07, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

The classic cinema repertory house, long a staple of university towns and bohemian districts but largely superseded elsewhere by the VCR revolution, returns to Baltimore Friday with the opening of the $70,000 Orpheum Cinema in Fells Point.

Masterminded by the former assistant manager and projectionist of the venerable Charles Theater, the Orpheum, an 80-seat auditorium built into the second story of a row house at 1724 Thames St., will show a classic double feature with programs changing every 2 to 3 days.

"I know from my days on the floor at the Charles," says manager George Figgs, 44, "that there's a hunger for this kind of film in Baltimore. These are the movies people whined to see."

Figgs says that the emphasis in his programming will be on the foreign art film but he wants to show "the entire spectrum, from 75 years ago to eight months ago."

The theater opens with a triple bill Friday through Sunday of "Orpheus," directed by Jean Cocteau at 7:30 p.m.; "Sunset Boulevard," directed by Billy Wilder at 9:30 p.m.; and "Fellini's Roma," at 11:30 p.m. Admission is $4.50.

November 12-15, the theater goes to a two-and-one schedule, showing one film at 7:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. sandwiched around a 9:30 p.m. showing for another film. For the first of these billings it retains "Roma" and adds Fellini's "Juliet of the Spirit" as the 9:30 show; on November 16-18, it shows the early talkie "Svengali," with John Barrymore, at 7:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. and the silent "Pandora's Box," with Louise Brooks, directed by G. W. Pabst, at 9:30 p.m.

The films will be shown in 16-mm via a rear-screen projection unit that can accommodate 6,000 feet of film -- meaning an entire film, plus short subjects, can be projected without changing reels.

"The rear-projection technique," says Mr. Figgs, "was originally developed for movie special effects. Since then, it's emerged as a technology for corporate presentations and is only beginning to make its appearance in commercial exhibition. It is employed in Theater 80, a rep art house in Manhattan. The system employs a 1,000-watt Xenon arc bulb and the image will be bright and intense."

There's even a story behind the Orpheum's chairs: Figgs bought his 80 seats from Blaze Starr's old Clover Theater on the Block.

"Wool mohair, cast iron, and cherry wood," he says proudly, of the slightly worn but still comfortable seats in the small auditorium, where, besides features, he will show period newsreels, cartoons and short subjects.

He says that the market in Baltimore isn't big enough to support a 250 seat rep house -- as the Charles, which has switched almost entirely to first-run art product, has learned -- but that an 80-seat house could survive in the market.

"We know there's a well-focused, eclectic audience here in Baltimore."

"We don't see the VCR as our enemy," says Figgs. "In fact, we're hoping to get the people who rent classic films . . . who are ready to start see

ing movies on a big screen again. We feel serious film buffs have tired of seeing the films on a TV screen. I'm not afraid. I know I'll find them!"

He will also use the classic rep house strategy of a monthly bulletin, so that ardent moviegoers can plan their movie-going weeks in advance, and offer discount ticket booklets.

Mr. Figgs left the Charles two years ago to raise money for his new venture, in which he's partnered with a successful Fells Point bar and restaurant down the block called John Stevens Ltd.

He's an ardent movie fan, he says.

"I've been going to two movies a week since 1955," proclaims the Hampden native, who grew up seeing films in two "nabe" theaters, the Hampden and the Ideal.

Now he can see them every night.

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