COME summer, when Hollywood traditionally offers up a big...

salmagundi

June 28, 1994

COME summer, when Hollywood traditionally offers up a big stash of films, Baltimore movie-goers have a definite advantage. Small towns with single multiplex theaters show only the big hits. Larger cities have theaters with competing films, allowing moviegoers a choice of, say, "The Flintstones" or the more off-beat "Kika."

But not without certain prerequisites. For city movie fans, a car is a must. Catching the film of your choice -- especially an obscure one -- usually involves a hike to the county.

How did this happen? Baltimore, population 720,000, has six first-run theaters. Ann Arbor, Mich., population 110,000, has five. Other cities (San Francisco, Chicago) have dozens more.

This was not always the case. "Baltimore used to be full of beautiful first-run theaters," says Dr. Robert Headley, whose book "Exit" chronicled the history of movie houses in Baltimore. "Most are gone."

"For a variety of reasons, movie theaters have left for the county," says Tom Kiefaber, of the Senator Theater. "It also happened in Philadelphia and D.C."

The reasons are social abstractions -- crime, demographics, TV. The reality is concrete: Rows of impersonal mall theaters.

Two casualties were movie palaces and neighborhood theaters. "We believe going to a theater should be a wonderful experience like the movie itself," says Mr. Kiefaber. So did the exhibitors of the 1930s. They designed palatial theaters such as the Art Deco Ambassador in North Baltimore and the Spanish-style Valencia downtown. The Century, at Lexington and Charles, had a golden lion as a headstone.

In 1939, many theaters were a neighborhood fixture. People went to the movies three and four times a week." says Mr. Kiefaber.

Things are a bit different now. Baltimore's movie houses have been reset as multiplexes. Neighborhood theaters have now been replaced by video stores. The Senator and the Charles, both built in 1939, are remnants of the city's old movie culture.

"People like having the owner of the theater there to introduce the film and answer their questions. They like the art deco lobby. It's a nicer experience than the concrete bunker at the end of the mall," says Mr. Kiefaber.

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