Put the Charles Back in Charles St.

February 22, 1994

The consolation of this awful winter is that the glorious Baltimore spring is not far behind. Silently but relentlessly, slender daffodils push up through the frozen ground. And just as the closing of the Charles art film house on Dec. 12 brought frigid gloom to Charles Street between Pennsylvania Station and North Avenue, its scheduled reopening March 10 promises a cultural flowering on old Charles Street for spring.

It was a shabby old theater that closed after its Washington-based owner thought the audience for artistic and off-beat films was retreating from the crime-plagued center city. He blamed the closing of the Chesapeake Restaurant, which undoubtedly brought tone to the neighborhood. This may have been a problem in perception, but in movies, perception is reality.

It will be a bright new theater that rises with the daffodils. A new lobby, new carpet and an espresso coffee machine are promised by the Baltimore-based new owners, who include the last manager of the old theater. So the ritual of the seasons and the cycle of death and rebirth are played out.

In truth, Baltimore would have survived the permanent closure of the Charles. It is not the only place in town to see a movie that is good but not in the malls and plexes. The Senator, Orpheum, Rotunda, the Film Forum at the Baltimore Museum of Art and film nights at the Walters Art Gallery come to mind.

But the Charles is central. It has anchored healthy activity on its stretch of Charles Street, the symbolic north-south corridor of Baltimore. As dismal for all Baltimore as was the economic decline of that stretch of the famous artery, that's how good the news is of its rebirth. Perhaps the Charles was never going to die. Others experienced in film biz were eager to take up the lease. Local folks got it. It may be an art house, but this film has a happy ending.

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