Tales of the Town

Baltimore Glimpses

March 30, 1993|By Gilbert Sandler

IT SITS empty now, a dark cavern of movie memories, most of them from the '30s and '40s. The marquee, hanging over the sidewalk on the south side of 315 West Fayette St. just off Eutaw, still reads "Town." And for a classic showbiz memoir, there is no story quite like the Town story.

What we came to know as the Town opened in 1910 as a burlesque house called the Empire. In 1913 the name was changed to the Palace and the fare to vaudeville, and here the plot thickens. Shortly after its rebirth, the Palace began to play burlesque again, and the rival Gayety (the remnants of which are still at 404 East Baltimore St.), in a move to eliminate the Palace as competition, paid the Palace not to play burlesque.

That left the Palace, in the next chapter, featuring odd-ball shows: on-stage boxing, Yiddish theater, "risque" movies (the word in use in those days). In the Depression, the Palace was still a potpourri. It showed the steamy, controversial "Ecstasy," with sex goddess Hedy Lamarr, in 1933. The following year the nationally famous Minsky's Burlesque played the Palace, and the police brought the curtain down. In 1937, the Palace gave up; it was sold and converted to a garage.

End of story, right? Wrong.

In 1947, the Rappaport organization turned the garage back into a movie house -- an ironic reversal of the usual procedure -- and called it the Town. It was one more "downtown" house (along with the Hippodrome, Century, Keith's, New and the Stanley), but premiered "It's a Wonderful Life," featuring Jimmy Stewart; "The Best Years of Our Lives," with Fredric March and "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," with Jane Powell. Art deco was the interior style, and the second-floor lounge featured a faux tropical garden that became quite an attraction.

On Sept. 25, 1953, a man on the FBI's most-wanted list, James Elgin Johnson, made a phone call that the agency traced to a phone booth on the mezzanine of the Town. Within minutes, agents rushed to the theater, found Johnson still on the phone and peppered him and the booth with bullets. It was real-life drama right out of Mickey Spillane.

The audience, in the darkened theater inside, never knew what happened. It was watching a movie based on Spillane's 1947 thriller, "I, the Jury." The late Janetta Somerset Ridgely, a Sun reporter at the time, described what happened:

"The frenzy of gunshots the audience was hearing in the gangster movie got mixed up with the scattered gunshots coming from the mezzanine fracas. The timing of the real with the fictional was a miracle of coincidence."

The Town stopped showing movies about five years ago. It still stands, its stately facade bearing witness to that 1953 miracle and all the other happenings in a theater's storied history.

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