Film house fulfills Figgs' fantasy

Jacques Kelly

December 03, 1990|By Jacques Kelly

One afternoon last week, the city's newest film exhibitor was having a grand time in the projection room of his 80-seat temple of celluloid.

George Figgs, whose Orpheum Cinema made its debut three weeks ago in the 1700 block of Thames St. in Fells Point, was rewinding a movie.

On a separate sound system, the soundtrack to "Lawrence of Arabia" and Judy Garland singing "You Made Me Love You" alternately boomed through the darkened and empty theater.

"When I see people really loving a movie, that does it for me," he said. "I could die tomorrow and be perfectly fulfilled."

The Orpheum, named for the mythological Greek musician who could pluck the lyre like no mere mortal, also mirrors the name of many a 1910-era silent film and vaudeville house. The choice was intentional. Figgs is a man caught up in the sweep of film history.

"This is the temple of Orpheus and I am the priest," he laughed, delighted at his new role.

Figgs, 43, grew up in what he calls the "deep South" of Baltimore, 36th Street near Ash Street, in the Hampden neighborhood. At that time, 36th Street had two movie houses, the Hampden and the Ideal.

"The beam of light came out of the darkness and exploded in a Technicolor wonderland," Figgs said of his childhood memories of such classics as "Mighty Joe Young" and "It Came from Outer Space." In the 1950s, there were still many Republic and Monogram studios serials still being shown in Hampden on Saturday afternoons. It was the kindergarten of his film education.

"I'll admit," he said. "I was a nut. I lived in a fantasy world. I lived in Hampden but didn't look like anybody else there."

His father's family, of Cornish-Welsh origin, is from the Eastern Shore. There is a Figgs Landing on Chincoteague Bay. His mother is Polish. His uncle, Dr. John Sczerbicki, was a well-known East Baltimore physician.

"My Eastern European roots are very strong and I feel very much at home in this neighborhood," Figgs said of Fells Point. The Polish side of the family, he feels, gave him a love of art and music.

When he graduated from St. Thomas Aquinas parochial school in Hampden, Figgs wanted to become a Catholic priest. He enrolled at St. Charles College, the preparatory high school for the priesthood. He wound up being transferred to Archbishop Curley High School, where he graduated. Somewhere along the way, Figgs got sidetracked from Vatican City.

During this period, Figgs discovered the downtown of the 1950s and early 1960s Howard Street, with its Little Theatre, the Pixie Shop (a great hang-out for his crowd) and Martick's on Mulberry Street.

And once a year, there was downtown's greatest fashion show -- the Flower Mart, which attracted exotic, funky characters in addition to the more proper members of the Women's Civic League. It also was a halcyon time of the pre-hippy coffee houses -- the Blue Dog Cellar, La Flambeau and the Boar's Head.

The Figgs resume also includes a sojourn in Manhattan (too much fast-lane there), a career as a blues, rock and folk musician, some roles in John Waters' movies and a handful of years just cooling off in Western Maryland, near Flintstone, off the old U.S. 40 in Allegany County.

But Figgs has always loved movies. In the 1980s, he worked at the Charles Theatre, where Garey Lambert, the man in the projectionist's booth, taught him how to make the high-powered lamp and lens work.

The place he selected for the Orpheum is the second floor of a former horse car stables. His auditorium is the place where the animals once were quartered. The hay lifting machine's apparatus still is in place.

Helped by financial backers, Figgs has thrown everything he has into the Orpheum, which has an attractive lobby overlooking the harbor, Recreation Pier, the tug boats and the Procter and Gamble plant. Though the seats are second-hand (from the old Clover movie house in the 400 block of E. Baltimore St.) the rear-screen projection system is state-of-the-art. The theater operates seven nights a week, with matinees on weekends.

Figgs worked over the summer with George Maslen and Maslen's daughter Cathy to renovate the space. There were times this past summer when Figgs merely moved in a bed and lived here.

And then there's George Figgs, in his splendid movie manager's suit, walking his single aisle, pleased that his dream of his own movie house is no longer a coming attraction. The lights dim every night at 7:30.

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