Fred Schmuff, Baltimore's grand old man of the movies

Jacques Kelly

February 22, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

The grand old man of Baltimore film exhibitors died last Friday at 88.

Fred Schmuff was his name and his remarkable career went from the two-reeler Biograph films to "Star Wars." He played the violin for moviegoers during the silent film era. He was an usher. He married a woman he met in a musical revue at the Hippodrome.

Fred put the key in the lock on the door of the State Theatre the day it opened in 1927. He was there the day a lion from a vaudeville act jumped from the stage into the audience. And he had the sad task of closing that glorious plaster temple on Monument Street 36 years later.

With more than 70 years in the movie screening business, Schmuff had but one job and one employer -- Durkee Enterprises. Most of that time was spent in an old-fashioned office in the 5400 block of Harford Road, a front wall away from the neon lights of the Arcade Theatre marquee. A bronze paperweight of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lion sat on his desk.

Fred was a small man whose weight never exceeded 100 pounds. In earlier years, his hand constantly held a cigarette. He beat throat cancer 30 years ago, then, unrepentant, switched to cigars, smoking about one an hour.

He had an old-fashioned manner of speaking and laced his talk with Hollywood lingo. There was a touch of a Damon Runyon character about this lover of classical music. Attired in a plain suit, he was a regular at the very proper dining room in the Ambassador Apartments in north Baltimore where he ordered either broiled flounder or calves liver.

Be it his lunch (crusts trimmed from sandwiches and a mandatory pickle on a separate plate) or a column of admissions receipts, all manner of detail had to be precise, perfect and accurate. And, as fastidious as Schmuff was, he could cuss and argue with the best when battling a film distributor.

"It's the people who come in on passes who do the most complaining," Schmuff said in one of his classic observations.

He never took vacations but did attend out-of-town film conventions, where he did business. He worked until he was 86.

Schmuff's wife, the former Elena Costa, was a professional dancer he met when she was appearing at the Hippodrome. He booked the act at his State Theatre and they soon got engaged and married.

His phenomenal memory could list the seating capacities of the theaters under his supervision -- Ambassador, Arcade, Boulevard, Belnord, Circle, Colony, Edgewood, Fairmount, Forest, Grand, Gwynn, Linwood, McHenry, Northway, Patterson, Red Wing, Senator and Waverly. He had theaters from the South River to Havre de Grace, West Baltimore to North Point. In a heartbeat, he could tabulate a gross, subtract the film distributor's cut, factor in overhead and come up with the net.

Had he been a horseplayer, he would have been a demon at computing race-track odds. People who worked with him said he possessed a secret system that seemed to be a cross between bridge scoring and stock market tables. But he used it to compute neighborhood clientele, rental costs and the imponderable tastes of Baltimoreans. He was usually right. His golden question was, "Will Baltimore like it?"

Fred's own taste in movies ran to musicals and serious drama. He was good at matching the right neighborhood to the right movie. In his years with Durkee -- he held the title of managing director -- he oversaw the operations of some 30 neighborhood theaters. In the golden years, he and his associates opened a new house a year. In later years, they closed a house a year.

There will be a memorial service for Schmuff at 10 a.m. Monday at First English Lutheran Church, Charles and 39th streets. But it was more appropriate that Fred was eulogized from the stage of the Senator last Saturday.

Tom Kiefaber, co-owner of the Senator, talked about his mentor, then cut himself off, reminded of another of Fred's principles, "Always start the picture on time."

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