Vaudeville, movies put The Block on the map

January 16, 1994|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,Staff Writer

Baltimore's downtown entertainment district was born out of the ashes of the 1904 fire that leveled the commercial heart of the city.

Far different from the uptown world of Howard Street where the higher-priced straight plays and musical comedies played, The Block, as it came to be known, began as a stretch of penny arcades, shooting galleries and vaudeville parlors.

Just two years after the fire that leveled so much of Baltimore, the street's major landmark made its debut. Called The Gayety, it opened at 405 E. Baltimore St. on Feb. 5, 1906.

The theater had two balconies, six boxes and 1,600 seats on the orchestra floor. The first show there featured Fred Irwin's "Majestics" in a show of chorus dancers billed as "Sweet, smooth, rich, musical, clinging, nervous. . . ."

In later years, stars such as Red Skelton, Joe Penner, Phil Silvers, Jackie Gleason and Billy Hagen appeared there. So did strippers Sally Rand, Gypsy Rose Lee, Blaze Starr and Valerie Parks.

The Gayety's auditorium was wrecked by a five-alarm fire Dec. 21, 1969. The building still stands, remodeled for other uses.

On April 1, 1907, a Philadelphia film producer, Sigmund Lubin, opened a combined vaudeville and film house named after himself. Its interior was illuminated with 1,400 incandescent bulbs. The operation was renamed the Plaza in 1927. It survived another 50 years, operating briefly as a burlesque parlor after The Gayety fire.

Other film houses were the Amusea, later called the Clover. It opened in 1908. The Victoria was a vaudeville house where the seats were 10, 20 and 30 cents. It was renamed the Embassy on March 1, 1926, with a private showing of "Phantom of the Opera."

"The organist that night did a really bang-up job, and when the title announced the chandelier would fall, he pulled out all the stops. The resulting sound that startled the audience out of its wits, resembled a real chandelier crashing to the floor," wrote local theater historian Robert Headley in his book, "Exit."

On Jan 2, 1921, the Rivoli Theatre opened at 418 E. Baltimore St. It was the largest (1,800 seats) film house in the district. It closed in 1953 and was made into a parking garage. In the late 1980s, the garage was replaced by a city office building.

All the theaters fared well during Prohibition, when liquor could .. not be sold legally. The national law, lightly enforced in Maryland, did not inhibit The Block.

In 1926, Max Cohen created a cabaret night spot called the Oasis in a nightclub once called the Music Box. The Oasis took off after the repeal of Prohibition and was packed during the World War II years. Mr. Cohen, who acquired considerable real estate in the area, was known as the Mayor of The Block. Some said he brought the striptease to Baltimore bars. Mr. Cohen died in 1970.

By 1940 the neighborhood was changing. The 400 block of E. Baltimore St. was beginning to establish itself as the city's largest show bar-nightclub district. The striptease, once the province of The Gayety, was spreading to bars like the Two O'Clock Club and the Oasis.

But the street always had a business and commercial character. Businesses included a magicians' supply house, insurance agents, a boxing gym, a savings bank, a cigar store, a drug store and numerous pawnbrokers.

In December 1950, Blaze Starr, also known as Fannie Bell Fleming, opened at the Two O'Clock Club. She became the city's most famous stripper and was depicted in the pages of National Geographic.

By December 1952, Mr. Cohen complained that Block business was way off, down 55 percent from World War II.

"We're a five-passenger car carrying two people," he said. He also complained that strip joints were spreading to other parts of Baltimore, robbing The Block of its main source of income.

In January 1977, the Horn & Horn Restaurant, the first of the chain of that name, closed after about 85 years at its site on Baltimore Street near Guilford Avenue. The restaurant was a famous meeting place frequented by the sporting crowd, Block regulars and politicians.

The same year, the City Council enacted an adult entertainment zone law that required Block business owners to clean their buildings and install new signs.

In May 1984, the city approved the purchase of Block property for a new municipal office building, trimming the size of the entertainment district to its present size of about 1 1/2 blocks.

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