A former Hollywood haunt will be reincarnated as a funeral parlor

Jacques Kelly

August 10, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

It's hard not to imagine the flickering ghosts of 1950s Hollywood haunting the inside of the old Carlton movie theater on Dundalk Avenue.

After years of being closed, the lobby doors are open again while workmen gut its cavernous interior. Within a few months, the Carlton will be reborn as a funeral home operated by an old Canton family.

"You can imagine the dirt we found in here," said Charles Kaczorowski, an undertaker whose firm purchased the former movie house in May.

He and his brother, Tom, are doing much of the initial demolition work themselves, ripping out dry-rotted wall coverings, 676 seats and the accumulated chewing gum of nearly 40 years of matinees and evening shows.

A bonus for their efforts: many handfuls of stale popcorn and $5.26 in change.

The old cinema at Dundalk Avenue and German Hill Road stands out in the Graceland Park community. Its stylish blond brick exterior walls and marquee are a throwback to the days when the No. 26 streetcar barreled down the center of the street on the way to Sparrows Point. These exterior walls will remain intact, although the old electric light-dotted marquee is to be removed.

Inside, enduring touches of the movie palace remain all over the place -- such as, a swirling Florentine border in the auditorium, rococo plaster trim around the movie poster showcases, a terrazzo lobby with rounded mirrors, fruitwood walls and restrooms tiled in a vibrant maroon ceramic tile.

In the glory days, Hollywood magic beamed from a fireproof chamber on the second floor, where a bank of gas-fired, carbon-arc projectors flashed their images over the heads of patrons seated below.

The brothers would like to find a home for some of this old movie house equipment. A church and small theater group have claimed some of the old seats, but the Kaczorowskis would like to see some of them go to a museum or preservation society.

"We're not going to make this place into a Taj Mahal," said Charles Kaczorowski, whose parents, Raymond and Eleanor Kaczorowski, founded the family's Fleet Street business in 1952. "We're a neighborhood funeral home that serves our families."

A big barn of a neighborhood movie house, the Carlton saw its best days in the 1950s and 1960s. It opened on Washington's Birthday in 1949 with Abbott and Costello in "Mexican Hayride." By today's standard of the small-auditorium, multiplex cinema, it was a monster.

"The place is incredibly well built," Charles Kaczorowski said. "There's 18-inch thick masonry walls here."

The Carlton was the work of architect John F. Eyring, a Mayfield resident who drew plans for other locally famous neighborhood houses -- the Strand (Dundalk), Vilma (Belair Road), Pikes (Pikesville), and Uptown (Park Heights), all now closed as movie theaters. A Catholic, Mr. Eyring was named a papal knight of the Order of St. Gregory the Great by Pope Pius XII a few years after the Carlton opened.

This ecclesiastical honor does not mesh well with the Carlton's last days as a movie theater, when it became a porno house, much to the outrage of neighboring residents and Graceland Park clergy.

The Carlton originally was owned by the East Baltimore-based Gaertner circuit, which also had the nearby Strand (built in 1927) on Dundalk's Shipping Place.

The Strand also faces rebirth. America's Pastime, the group that converted the McHenry Theater in South Baltimore into baseball batting cages and other sports-related activities, holds a contract of sale for the Strand. Plans call for it also to become a neighborhood sports center.

Another eastside theater, the Grand on Conkling Street south of Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown, already has changed hands. When renovation is complete, it is slated to become a banquet hall.

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