Fabled Met movie house once anchored corner of busy North and Pennsylvania

JACQUES KELLY

March 10, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

Sixty-five years ago today, people lined up outside the Metropolitan Theatre at North and Pennsylvania avenues.

The attraction was Al Jolson's legendary performance in the movie, "The Jazz Singer," the country's first talkie.

The Met, as it was known familiarly, was the first film house in Baltimore that obtained rights to show the new sensation that featured Jolson's voice heard over the patented Vitaphone sound system.

During the life of the Met, its plaster walls resounded with applause, laughter and sobs.

The Met's final curtain came down in July 1977. In 1978, the theater was demolished for construction of the Penn-North subway station.

"Never, never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I'd be building a Rite Aid store on that corner today," says Douglas E. Moore, 39, a vice president of A&R Development Corp. His firm has plans to build a drugstore in the 2500 block of Pennsylvania Ave., a spot known as Penn North Plaza, around the corner from the Met on North Avenue.

Like so many youngsters who once lived along North Avenue, Moore once knew every brick and ornamental plaster griffon in one of Baltimore's great uptown movie palaces.

"I grew up in Wilson Park, off Cold Spring Lane in the 4700 block of Ivanhoe Ave. But my grandmother lived at Walbrook and Smallwood. She'd pick me up at the Guilford Elementary School and we'd take the No. 8 streetcar to North Avenue, then catch the 13 going west.

"If we were going to the movies, we'd stop at the old Read's drugstore

next to the Met and buy our candy first because the candy sold in the movies was too expensive," he recalls.

He finds more than a touch of irony in the fact that 15 years after the block of buildings was leveled for Metro construction, a Rite Aid (successor to the Read's chain) will be returning to the Pennsylvania Avenue side of the corner.

"For all those years a Read's Drug Store stood there, next to the theater. Now, the drugstore is returning," he says.

Today anyone who sat through a matinee of "The Jazz Singer" or "42nd Street" or "Casablanca" -- all the hits the Warner Studio once ground out -- at the old Met would never recognize the corner.

All traces of the theater have vanished.

A six-story, 66-unit red brick apartment house for the elderly is being constructed by the Baltimore Housing Partnership in conjunction with St. Katherine's Episcopal Church.

The apartments stand toward the rear of what was the theater property, where the orchestra pit once cradled players in the Metropolitan Concert Orchestra. It, along with a pipe organ, serenaded the silent moving pictures.

Each generation had its own film favorite here. Moore recalls seeing the Beatles in "A Hard Day's Night" and the James Bond spy films of the 1960s and '70s.

"We'd buy a ticket and go in. We didn't care if the feature had started or not. We just took a seat and sat through the movie, then maybe saw it a second time if we liked it. It was a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Today my own children sit home and play video games," he says.

Until it was leveled in 1978, the Met survived in a good state of preservation. Much of its original color scheme (mulberry, ivory, gray and gold walls) had not been tampered with.

The domed ceiling clung to its gold leaf. The large balcony had its plaster griffons and classical Greek-influenced motif. An auctioneer sold off the brass rails, mirrors, fountains and curtain in August 1977.

The Met was no ordinary movie theater. It was one of the few theaters not situated downtown to screen exclusive, first-run productions. It opened Dec. 15, 1922, and cost $325,000. It sold to the state subway system for $128,000.

When it opened, all films were silent and the Metropolitan's orchestra or pipe organ played for the celluloid features. In 1925, Warner Brothers bought the place for $375,000. It was soon wired for sound films, which that studio pioneered.

Primitive talkies arrived here in late 1927 with a production of "Don Juan." The legendary Jolson film followed and stayed for months. Its place was taken by "The Lights of New York," the film often cited as the first true all-talking movie.

Part of the Met's mighty draw was its strategic uptown location, at the intersection of the busy North Avenue cross-town streetcar with the Pennsylvania Avenue line.

North Avenue was lined with businesses convenient to block after block of surrounding middle-class neighborhoods. To the immediate east of the theater entrance was the Read's drugstore, a Virginia Dare confectionery shop and a Spotless dry cleaners. Kolb's dairy and bakery was around the corner in the 2500 block of Pennsylvania Ave. Just across the street was W. J. Tickner's funeral parlor, once the busiest embalmer in Baltimore.

The Met lasted longer than many younger movie houses. Its last audience was the crowd of smokehounds who broke into the place during the winter of 1977-78. They drank cheap wine in its seats until the wrecking contractors threw them out.

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