Discarded sign evokes moviegoing era

JACQUES KELLY

February 17, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

A piece of history caught my eye while I was driving by a sign company on Hawkins Point Road. The Edmondson Drive-In Theatre's sign sat among dozens of discarded neon heralds for corned beef joints and dry cleaners and drugstores.

But the Edmondson sign was special. It was evocative of the golden era of Hollywood that once entranced this country. No trip today to a neighborhood video store or evening at home in front of a television screen will make up for what the Edmondson represented.

Going to the movies was a special act 40 years ago. Baltimoreans didn't go to films, they just went to the movies, usually in their own neighborhood.

The experience I recall best was the local movie house, the kind of place like the Boulevard, Belnord, Paramount, State, Vilma, McHenry, Strand, Towson, Westwood or Arcade. The movies weren't always terrific but you always returned the next week.

Most of these places had about 50 good years. As they grew old, they grew less pretentious and, therefore, better. They were comfortable, unassuming places to watch a movie and meet half the neighborhood. Their confines were ample enough to sit back and let the big screen project its magic.

I was never a customer of the Edmondson Drive-In. I knew it chiefly during the Sunday daylight hours when it served as a huge flea market. Even then, the ground it occupied had its own style. The site is now a Home Depot outlet, but local flea marketeers often rhapsodize about this piece of Baltimore County acreage.

There was a special quality to that 1950s sign on Baltimore National Pike north of Catonsville. The movie industry seems to generate curious artifacts that have the capacity to be locked into the recesses of the local collective memory.

It's easier to recall the stone goldfish pond inside the lobby at the old Ideal Theatre on Hampden's 36th Street than it is the Warner Brothers films on the screen.

The pond was probably made by a stone mason on his day off for $19. To the eyes of a 6-year-old in 1956, the pond was what made this theater great.

Someday some interior decorator will have the genius to reproduce the art deco carpeting that used to run down the aisles of the old Waverly Theatre near Greenmount Avenue and 32nd Street. It was a geometric mix of triangles and circles, pure movie theater gaudy. It was great. I preferred that carpet's design to objects in exhibits agonized over by curators at the Museum of Modern Art.

Baltimoreans still have Govans' Senator Theatre to savor and appreciate. Its rotunda is filled with a circular mural in soft pastel tones. I can recall 25 years ago, when James Bond movies were peaking in popularity, having an idea that one day people would grow to cherish the skillfully artificial world of the movie house. The Senator is a better example of the all-but-vanished species, but it remains completely typical of the dozens we once had and took for granted.

These were big auditoriums that sat maybe 900 or more people. The walls were covered with some sort of drapery that you'd find only in a theater named Deluxe or Grand. The ceiling seemed higher than most church roofs. The lobby walls were often covered in polished fruitwood veneer. The porcelain in the water fountains was as polished as the terrazzo lobby floors.

In 1965, a wrecking crew leveled Howard Street's Stanley Theatre. As it was being razed, people who wanted a piece of the city's largest movie palace scooted inside the construction fence and made off with plaster chunks of its ceiling and walls for souvenirs, reminders of the hours spent at matinees inside the cavernous 1927 movie house.

These palaces of entertainment history had walls of heavy masonry, plaster mixed with horsehair, then artfully finished in silvery and gold tones. The aesthetic may be pure Hollywood, but they made an impression that survives to this day.

The images of these local landmarks do not vanish easily -- the curve of the Westway's marquee (Edmondson Avenue), the tan bricks on the front of the State (Monument Street), the neon Battle Monument on the front of the Lord Baltimore (1100 block of W. Baltimore St.).

They're all part of a vanishing world of imagination, fun and showmanship, and audiences that came back for more every week.

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