Vacant movie theater may be revamped in historic Ellicott City

October 24, 1994|By Sherry Joe | Sherry Joe,Sun Staff Writer

Historic Ellicott City could have a miniature movie palace like The Senator or the Charles if Jill Porter has her way.

The Baltimore resident plans to reopen the Ellicott Theatre at the corner of Main Street and Old Columbia Pike and show artistic, second-run and classic films like those featured in the Baltimore movie houses.

"I've just been a movie fan for years," said Ms. Porter, who works for the State Department of Education.

Most recently the home of Lewis & Carroll's Comics & Cards, a combination second-run movie house and comics and collectibles shop, the building has been vacant since the summer. During the years, the 52-year-old structure has housed a children's theater group, a disco, a laundromat and a grocery store.

Ms. Porter wants to open her theater in early December, after glass entrance doors are installed, the ticket booth is repainted and seats are added to the existing 124.

Ms. Porter said her biggest challenges will be dealing with any cost-overruns and booking films that will appeal to her audience. She's also worried about the reaction she'll receive from the public.

"The biggest challenge is letting people know I'm there," she said. The building "has changed so many times, people don't know what they're going to see there."

To evoke the theater's past, Ms. Porter plans to change its marquee name from The Little Theater on the Corner to the Ellicott Theatre, its name when it opened in the 1940s.

"I want to take it back to what it was," Ms. Porter said. "I know it's really presumptuous to emulate the great movie palaces of yesterday, but given the chance . . ."

Ms. Porter has worked in the political arena for 20 years, participating in a campaign for Gov. William Donald Schaefer and working for former U.S. Sen. Charles McC. Mathias, among other activities.

Ms. Porter said she hungers for new challenges.

"I wanted to try something different," Ms. Porter said. "I'll be 43 at the end of this month. If I want to try something new, this is the time to do it."

After inspecting small theaters in Rehoboth, Del., and along the Eastern Shore where she grew up, Ms. Porter settled on the Ellicott City site.

"It's just the perfect size to manage," she said, adding that Howard County's size, demographics and proximity to Baltimore also contributed to her decision.

"I'm hoping to capitalize on my generation and younger viewers fascinated" by classic films and old movie houses, she said.

Organizers of two county film series said that, although Ms. Porter plans to show movies similar to the ones they feature, there is still room for her art revival house.

"I think there's always a need for more opportunities to see classic films," said David Pierce, series programmer and host of Marvelous & Maddening, a nine-movie film series of American and foreign classics from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.

Mr. Pierce said he is not worried about competition between his film series and the Ellicott.

"I think we've picked up a different audience," he said. "We're getting the same kind of community seeing plays at the theater."

Marvelous & Maddening shows films at The Slayton House in Wilde Lake Village and includes a group discussion followed by beverages and dessert.

Subscriptions to the Columbia Film Society, which exhibits foreign films and documentaries at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre, sold out during the first two weeks of this season, said board member Tom Brzenzski.

"For the last two years, we've had no trouble filling the house," said Mr. Brzenzski, who sent Ms. Porter the group's 1,200 mailing list to help her get started. "I think there's the need for" a revival film house in the county.

Ms. Porter estimates it will cost $35,000 to renovate the theater and to purchase film projection equipment. If she can keep costs within her budget, finish the renovations and book the films she wants, it will be show time.

"I have a real love for what I'm doing," Ms. Porter said. "When you do have that love, people feel it."

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