Charles art theater gets new lease on life

February 21, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

And now: "Chuck 2: The Sequel."

The Charles, the plucky little art theater in the 1700 block of North Charles Street, will reopen March 10 under a new local management team that hopes to continue its old policies.

"You don't have to worry about the Charles losing its edge," said John Sandiford, 29, who, with his partner (and uncle) James "Buzzy" Cusack, signed a five-year lease Saturday after a week of negotiations. The theater has been closed since Dec. 12.

Mr. Sandiford, the last manager under the previous management regime, will oversee the theater's daily operations. Baltimore-born and -bred, he began attending the Charles in 1980, when he was a sophomore at the Friends School.

The Charles will reopen with a benefit screening of "Farewell My Concubine," the Chinese film that was to have been shown the day the theater closed. The first night will be a benefit for the Joseph Richey Hospice on Eutaw Street for terminally ill patients and the Booth House, a homeless shelter run by the Salvation Army on Calvert Street.

Mr. Cusack, 52, a builder-contractor and long-time Baltimore resident, can recall the theater's glory days in the '80s.

"I used to just go to the theater to see a movie, without even looking at the paper to see what was playing," he said. "You knew that if it was at the Charles, it would be interesting."

Others on the new management team are George Mansour, a Boston-based booking agent with art film expertise, and George Udel, a local film buff who will serve as public relations consultant.

Washington exhibitor David Levy, who had run the theater for 14 1/2 years, closed it after seeing a 25 percent decline in business over two years. He attributed the decline to neighborhood crime and to increased competition for art house films from national chains.

It seemed to signal an end to the inner-city art house, at least in Baltimore.

Now, Mr. Cusack plans to upgrade the Charles: an espresso machine will be installed, the lobby will be remodeled, and the carpet will be replaced. He calls his investment on the lease, the improvements and bookings "considerable," though he would not put a dollar value on it.

The new management team, he said, also hopes to upgrade security arrangements on a block that is perceived as dangerous.

"We want to work with community leaders and with the police in trying to get more aggressive patrolling in the area," he said. "And we'll be stressing a previous program that didn't get much attention, the $2 valet parking service across the street."

The theater will be booked by Mr. Mansour, a nationally known art programmer who is familiar not only with the art market in general but also the Baltimore market.

He books two art theaters in Chapel Hill, N.C., advises the Ritz, an art house in Philadelphia, and is the guest curator at the Harvard Film Archives. He worked with the Durkee group in Baltimore when it made a run at turning the now-defunct Towson into an art house.

Ultimately, the Charles' fate will come down to a single issue: Can Mr. Mansour book enough provocative films in competition with the national chains to retain and expand on the theater's loyal core of followers?

"By working the reputation of the theater, there's other films out there beyond 'The Piano' and 'Howards End.' . . . " he said. "But there also has to be a real grass-roots effort. I can't do it all. John and George have got to work hard to build a constituency."

Alan Shecter, who owns the property as well as several others in the Pennsylvania Station corridor, said his son Michael convinced him to lease the theater to local exhibitors.

"We had interest in it from as far away as New York and Providence as well as from the Loews Theater chain," said Mr. Shecter. "But Michael told me that the theater needed the Three C's to flourish: Continuity, Commitment and Caring. That's why I elected to stay with local people."

Mr. Shecter said he made some concessions affecting the earliest part of the lease to help the new managers get off to a good start.

The Charles has traditionally occupied the radical's niche among local film exhibitors.

Other theaters -- the independently owned Senator on York Road or the Rotunda, a Loews theater -- show upscale and genteel art films such as "The Piano" and "The Remains of the Day." The Charles showed Martins Scorsese's controversial "Last Temptation of Christ" -- despite bomb threats and protesters.

Always advancing a scruffy, somewhat raffish, even "outlaw" image, it has shown such tough material as "Man Bites Dog," about a Belgian news team following a professional killer on his jobs, and many gay-themed and otherwise sexually provocative films.

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