Opening the Town

Baltimore Glimpses

March 01, 1994|By GILBERT SANDLER

THIS story actually belongs to Christmas. That's the season when the 1947 movie "It's a Wonderful Life" shows up endlessly on every TV station. But Glimpses discovered recently that when the movie premiered in Baltimore 47 years ago, both Jimmy Stewart, now 85, and director Frank Capra, who died in 1991, came here to help promote it and open the theater where it played.

Tuesday, Jan. 21, 1947, was a big night at the new Town Theater, south side of Fayette between Howard and Eutaw streets. (The theater, long since abandoned, still stands.)

The movie's star and director came to Baltimore on the 4:35 p.m. train from New York. Isadore Rappaport, owner and operator of the Town, met them and escorted them to the Belvedere Hotel. They checked into their rooms and met reporters at a press conference.

"Movie fans should shop around more," Capra said. "Movies are going to get a lot better . . ."

"Now that we're back," Mr. Stewart interrupted.

It was a reference to the timing of the movie. Both men had seen action in World War II, and this was their first post-war film.

Capra responded, motioning to Mr. Stewart: "I never saw a guy so anxious to get back to work."

Asked about his views on politics, Mr. Stewart was typically modest: "Well, you see, our business is entertainment." (Eight years earlier, Capra had directed Mr. Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," but the star was to say later that "It's a Wonderful Life," with its emphasis on small-town values, was his favorite film.)

Then the two went downtown to the Town. Connie Peddicord, of Towson, remembers the occasion:

"It was such a lovely evening, but it wasn't all that big or glamorous. Today there are grand openings all over the place, with so much media push. But back then those occasions were smaller, and there was less press and hoopla.

"We got lucky. My husband worked for M.S. Levy, and Mr. Lester Levy, the company's president, got us two passes. So we got a baby sitter, and off we went! I remember that Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra, just before the movie started, came stage forward and welcomed us. They both said nice things about the theater and wished us well. When I see Jimmy Stewart these days, well, I think back to that night in 1947 when I saw him in person at the Town. He was so handsome and so charming and so young."

Of Jimmy Stewart's role in "It's a Wonderful Life," Sun critic Donald Kirkley wrote, "Mr. Stewart has come back from the war with his unique boyish charm undiminished but sobered by a new maturity."

And Evening Sun critic Gilbert Kanour wrote: "Mr. Stewart obliges us with what is perhaps the finest performance of his career." Co-star Donna Reed also got good reviews.

That was 47 years ago. Ms. Peddicord is right. When they occur, which isn't often, grand openings are staged on an immense scale, with spotlights, TV cameras and limousines.

"But that opening night, small though it may have been," Ms. Peddicord says, "was more memorable for me than any of the ones I see today."

And why was that?

"Jimmy Stewart!"

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