It's been a long, long time since sound of blessed bedlam filled the McHenry Theatre's auditorium.
The noise and fun returned to South Baltimore's favorite movie house last weekend, when the long-shuttered plaster palace reopened as a sports center called America's Pastime.
The 1917 playhouse now has six indoor batting cages with automatic pitching machines, video games, pool tables, Skee-Ball, air hockey, a restaurant and baseball collectible store. The building is in the 1000 block of Light St., near the Cross Street Market.
"We took a risk," says Jay Estabrook, an accountant who is one of the center's owners. "But we looked at the Inner Harbor just up the street and thought it could work. . . . Could you imagine what we could do with all the abandoned theaters in this country?"
"We will not allow any foul language, no drinking, no smoking and no children until after school," says Richard LeClair, a contractor who is the other partner in the project.
Both men moved from Massachusetts to buy and renovate the theater, which ceased showing films in 1971. Their aim was to preserve as much of the McHenry interior as had survived. Luckily, the fine proscenium arch and its ornate columns survived in good shape and now are screened off from pop flies by a protective wire fencing.
The layout is ingenious. Batters stand at a spot farthest from the old screen. The pitching machines (hard and soft ball) are on the site of the old orchestra pit. The batter then tries to hit one on the stage, where there's a painted background that loosely resembles a crowd in a ballpark. An electronic sensor detects when someone blasts one over this spot and emits a cheering noise.
The owners are trying to cultivate neighborhood trade by working with South Baltimore Little Leagues and Southern High School students. But they've noticed a number of "business suits" walk in every day at lunch time. And the bar and restaurant crowd from the first block of E. Cross St. also finds its way into this amusement center.
It's noisy and busy and hopping. And encouraging to see a first-rate neighborhood movie palace be used again.
The story of the McHenry Theatre has been repeated dozens of times in Baltimore and in every city and town in this country.
It opened with considerable fanfare May 26, 1917. It was designed and built by the same organization that had the old Parkway Theatre at Charles Street and North Avenue. In 1925, it passed into the Frank Durkee chain, Baltimore's largest neighborhood film exhibition outfit. The McHenry was large -- with its balcony it sat nearly 1,200 -- and busy, often grinding out features, cartoons, serials and "selected short subjects."
The McHenry closed in 1971, just as plans for the Inner Harbor were beginning to take shape. The building never was harmed too much. It operated in the 1970s as a Goodwill thrift store and later its lobby became a Gino's fast food restaurant. There were serious efforts to bring back films to the McHenry, but economics did not permit this.
Baltimore banks did not think much of the America's Pastime concept. Mr. LeClair and Mr. Estabrook had to put up the $1.5 million cost from their own pockets and from other investors. Their wives, Ellen LeClair and Ann-Marie Estabrook, also work there.
"We built this without a plan," Mr. LeClair says. "I've built whole housing subdivisions but we didn't even have an architect. It just came together."