Of City Theaters, And One That Wouldn't Die


April 28, 1991|By Carleton Jones

Longer ago than anyone alive remembers, the city's mai theater district lay on both sides of the Jones Falls down in a raffish part of town crowded with saloons, cheap clothing stores and ethnic eateries. It was frequented before the Civil War and for years afterward by a lighthearted set who rarely ventured to the respectable westside retail district around Howard and Eutaw streets -- let alone to the elegance of Mount Vernon.

Those old days of the Holliday Street and the Front Street theaters died more than a century ago, when live theater took to the westside -- the area of upper Howard, Eutaw and Charles streets in the main. Then came the movie theaters, which took over still another part of downtown, West Lexington Street.

West Lexington, however, was far from the only down- town site of movie theaters during their golden age -- from 1910 through World War II. Farther west, huge Hollywood-style palaces like the Hippodrome, the Town and the Stanley packed them in with programs that often combined vaudeville acts, Ziegfeld-type girlie shows, famous-band appearances, movies and organ concerts.

On one narrow, cozy stretch of West Lexington were three theaters in the 1920s that you could walk by quicker than you could say "Gone With the Wind," which premiered locally in 1939 in one of them -- the Century. The other two theaters -- the Great Wizard and the Blue Mouse -- were active a few doors away. Both were far less pretentious than their neighbor.

The Century had a Louis the Something interior and a grand colonnaded entrance hall with staircase. Upstairs was a second theater, originally a dance party room, later a Moorish creation called the Valencia, which also was a movie house. Cab Calloway, the band leader and song-and-dance star made an early hit in the downstairs auditorium, and Clark Gable once strode its stage.

Both theaters were razed in the clearance for Charles Center lots 1962. But the development of the first residential high rises in the center-city area added a small film theater to downtown. The new theater occupied roughly the spot of the old Century auditorium and its second-story Valencia. It was dubbed the Tower Theatre to relate it to two adjoining high rises.

Somehow, the Tower never quite clicked, despite its central location. The well-built contemporary building kept opening and closing. Not even a run of soft-porn shows and $1.50 admissions could attract a heavy following. The year after the opening brought the 1968 riots which, until the Inner Harbor revival of the late 1970s and 1980s, kept most of Baltimore at home after dark.

This year, near the site where Cab Calloway sang and danced and Clark Gable appeared in 1930, the Tower will return to a live-audience function. It is the most recent addition to the Johns Hopkins University's downtown center, which occupies remodeled upper floors of the shopping mall just opposite St. Paul's Episcopal Church. Very large loft space over the old Tower Theatre has been equipped to serve as meeting rooms and offices for university functions.

The new theater, which was dedicated March 12, has been equipped as a state-of-the-art, 222-seat media building to showcase programs sponsored by the university's School of Continuing Studies. It is being called the Berman Auditorium, in honor of the family of the late Allan L. Berman and his wife, Jean, whose gift of $1.3 million to the university made the auditorium conversion possible. *

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