Orpheum's high priest of film moonlights as cabdriver


August 02, 1991|By Traci A. Johnson

As he drives through the streets of Baltimore during each of his 12-hour shifts, George Figgs directs a film. The scowls and smiles of the people who ride in his Diamond cab become scenes in the ongoing production in his mind, their voices the soundtrack.

"I see the world through a movie camera; people become images on film," said Mr. Figgs.

"I see people's faces and put music to their lives," he said. "Movies are an escape from reality."

Almost all the cabbie's reality is film. As owner and manager of the Orpheum, a little walk-up theater in Fells Point dedicated to old movies, foreign art films and movies of Baltimore filmmakers, he wouldn't have it any other way.

"I live for this theater, these films. They're absolutely fantastic, some bigger than life," said Mr. Figgs, 43. "There is absolutely nothing like the movie experience."

Part of the experience is the theater itself, he believes.

Viewers enter from the waterfront and climb steep, carpeted stairs to the pumpkin-colored lobby, complete with armchairs and coffee. A thin curtain separates the concession area from the auditorium: 80 wool-and-mohair seats resurrected from the Clover Theater, where Blaze Starr used to take it off on The Block.

"The atmosphere has to be perfect. . . . reminiscent of old movie houses of the 1950s and 1960s where kids would go to see weekly serials and gorge themselves on fresh popcorn," Mr. Figgs said.

To perfect that mix of mood and muse, he needs money -- a lot of it. So far, the taxi driving has come in handy, helping out during weeks when the theater was empty.

"One time I was running 1925 silent movie classics of Lon Chaney, and the public just didn't come," he said. "I had to do 20 extra [cab] fares just to pay the distributor for the films."

And there are other sacrifices. The six-block bike ride from his row house to Thames Street is not for exercise only. It's because Mr. Figgs, cabdriver, can't afford a car.

And the thick lenses in his glasses are a blurry reminder that he can't afford new ones.

"The theater pays for itself and my one paid employee," said Mr. Figgs with pride. "On a good week, we make $1,500, which is basically the cost to run it. That's why I drive a cab, to fill my own refrigerator and help pay the bills."

Despite all the work and the lack of money, Mr. Figgs is faithful to his love, putting everything he has into every showing, trying to lure folks away from their VCRs.

"There are people out there who watch so much television they fall asleep in front of the screen's blue glow and get a tube tan," DTC he said. "Movies are a whole different experience. You've got to love it."

People, he said, should have the opportunity to view classic films on the big screen. "It's the way people ought to see a film, with other people, eating popcorn, laughing, crying or both -- but together."

The idea behind the Orpheum -- named after a poet-musician in Greek mythology -- is to bring people together to enjoy the diversity in film, from the tackiest B-movies like "Attack of the 50-foot Woman" to Oscar-award winning films like "My Left Foot," at ticket prices ranging from the $3 matinee to $4.50 in prime time.

Anyone who enjoys such variety is a true worshiper of the art, in Mr. Figgs' view.

For these people, said Mr. Figgs, movie viewing is a religious experience. He himself is a man whose early desire to be a priest was squelched when he realized he had to follow non-negotiable rules.

"People interact with a bunch of other people in a theater, like at church, a meeting place, a temple attended by faithful film lovers who believe in the power of moving pictures," he said. "I was going to be ordained in the church, but I ended up being a priest in the temple of Orpheus."

As high priest, Mr. Figgs welcomes all with an altar stocked with Sno-Caps, Goobers, junk sugar candy called "Garbage Cans" and a pile of fresh popcorn.

Posters of Charlie Chaplin in "The Adventurers" and James Cagney in "Grand Hotel" hang on the brick walls to speak of eras long gone but not forgotten.

And to the Orpheum's patrons -- most of them college students -- Mr. Figgs has created a heaven for art lovers.

"Maybe it's the sky painted on the ceiling or the life-sized birds hiding in the rafters up there," said Colleen Moore, a 27-year old counselor at the House of Ruth. "I guess I come for the films, but the theater is so colorful and cozy. They play the kind of films I've always wanted to see and that I needed to see."

Alan Heldman, a cardiology fellow at Johns Hopkins Hospital, agreed.

"I live in the neighborhood and what I always thought it should have is a movie theater," he said. "The place is so laid back and comfortable, not like the big corporate movie houses."

Jim Fragomeni, a free-lance photographer from Mount Vernon, believes the Orpheum gives viewers a break from overly publicized first-run movies. "It is very personal and accessible, like going out with a small group of friends," he said. "In a city like this, it's good to have theaters which provide access to real film, not like the everyday cinema that's ground out in this country."

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