The Charles reopens, fueled by goodwill and a little espresso

March 11, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

It's baaaaa-aaaack!

Doing a passing imitation of a Hollywood premiere, complete to glossy people in tuxes, minicams and TV hairdos, searchlights wiping the sky clean of darkness and cops on bikes -- OK, the cops on the bikes aren't de rigueur -- Baltimore's embattled art theater, the Charles, reopened last night after four dark months.

The film happened to be Chen Kaige's "Farewell My Concubine" and the sold-out event happened to be a benefit for two charities. But basically it had but one meaning: The movies are back, and not just any movies -- the tough, dangerous, provocative and frequently subversive films that the Charles had made its specialty and identity over the years.

"It's overwhelming," said James "Buzz" Cusack, the Bolton Hill construction magnate who, with his young nephew, John Standiford, has refurbished, redecorated and repainted the theater in record time since their acquisition of the property a month ago.

"It's been a wonderful experience," Mr. Cusack said, a bit wearily, "much more so than John and I expected."

The evening was a blend of old and new Charles regimes. Gary Lambert was one of the first to arrive.

He was assistant manager and projectionist of the theater for many years under the old regime, and for many people represented the spirit of the old theater, built originally in 1939 as a newsreel house.

"It's wonderful," he said. "It's great to have it back, even if it looks a little darker than before."

Mr. Lambert was referring to the theater's swankily refurbished refreshment stand.

There, where once nestled the oldest collection of candy bars known to man and popcorn grown in the '60s and popped in the '70s, stood a gleaming glass counter full of pastries. Next to it was an espresso machine that looked as if it were originally intended for the Starship Enterprise.

Everything was new and almost gleaming, though the theater's lobby now boasts a tasteful black decor.

"It's very 'Angelika,' " said another old Charles hand, director John Waters, who had just returned from New York and publicity duties for his new movie "Serial Mom." He was referring to a wicked German film known for its art deco stylings.

At the same time, from the new ownership, John Standiford was standing around like a nervous father in a delivery room in a '30s comedy, watching the people file in.

"We were just going to take one machine out of the concession stand, but once we started removing things, we couldn't stop," he said.

There on a board was a food listing that suggested a new age had begun at the Charles: Amid the pastries, not merely "Brownies" but "No Fat Brownies."

At the same time, it was a coming together of the Baltimore independent exhibitors. Both Tom Kiefaber, who owns and operates the Senator, and George Figg, who does the same with the Orpheum in Fells Point, were on hand.

"I think it's terrific that the Charles is reopening," said Mr. Kiefaber.

"This city needs more, not less, independent movie houses."

Mr. Figg, who had worked for the Charles between 1983 and 1987 and now runs his theater as a second-run and repertory house, added, "I love it. I'm so glad to see it happening. I depend on a first-run art house. We bounce off of each other."

It was also an evening full of possibilities for the larger unit, the city's downtown.

"It's great," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who proudly boasted that he had put on his festive tie. "I'm real pleased that the Cusacks have done this. It's part of the transformation of Charles Street, and I'm convinced that once we finish the restoration of Pennsylvania Station [a block away] we're going to see the whole area bloom. We may even have the Chesapeake Restaurant open soon."

Then came the moment that everybody had been waiting for. The lights dimmed and there was one magical moment when, in the silence of the auditorium, one could hear the purring of the projector and a beam of light, as yet indistinct, leaped out across the darkness to splash against the screen.

Spontaneous applause erupted from the audience.

The Charles seemed to be saying . . . "My patrons . . . I can walk!"

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