When the Town was the place for movies

November 15, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

If you walk past the building at 315 W. Fayette St. today, you have to strain to believe that movie actor James Stewart was toasted as the guest of honor there.

This shabby and vacant theater, known since 1947 as the Town, was once one of Baltimore's highest grossing movie houses.

Jimmy Stewart, accompanied by director Frank Capra, walked past a line of exploding flash bulbs for the local premiere of the legendary film, "It's a Wonderful Life," which remains a staple of the home video market.

More than one show business story is attached to the Town's brick and marble-clad walls.

It is a house of many scenarios. In its long career, the theater has been a burlesque palace, a bingo hall, a parking garage and a reserved seat feature film house. It has known good times and bad. It is currently at rock bottom.

Now drift back to 1959. The Town is going all out for a reserved seat screening of "Ben Hur" starring Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd. You couldn't get in without buying a ticket in advance.

"The Town was considered a top premiere movie house," said M. Robert Rappaport, who owned and operated the theater for many years.

"When nobody had valet parking, we did. The Hippodrome, which we owned, was around the corner. It was known for its vaudeville acts. The Town was known as a deluxe long-run movie house," he said.

Local theater historian Robert K. Headley also gives the Town four bright stars.

"My mother was working at the May Company, and on Thursday night I'd come downtown and we'd have dinner together. She would then go back to work and I'd go in the Town for the movie."

The poor Town has had its share of trouble. It opened as a burlesque and vaudeville house with a different name, the Empire, on Christmas 1911.

It was quite a place, with 2,400 seats, a soda fountain, pool parlors and a basement rathskeller.

The name was changed to the Palace in 1913, and admission prices ranged from 10 to 50 cents. In these early days the Fayette Street playhouse rated big-name performers, headliners such as the fabled Mae West and comedian Joe E. Brown.

By the 1920s the Palace's fortunes had run dry. It was reduced to screening smutty movies, including one called "Some Wild Oats," which ignited the ire of Baltimore's keepers of the morals. The place went up for rent.

Amateur shows, bingo parties and boxing events came in; things got so bad that Minsky's striptease shows there occasioned a police raid. In 1937 the owners threw in the towel, ripped out the orchestra seats and made the Palace into a parking garage.

Then Mr. Rappaport's family bought the property and hired local architect John Zink to work his art-moderne wonders. Zink dressed the new Town in neon lighting, an expansive screen, curving walls and a mulberry-toned curtain.

It reopened Jan. 22, 1947.

In another 10 years the owners added Cinerama, the patented effect wherein three separate projectors beamed a film across a huge space. This was Hollywood's way of fighting back at the little black-and-white screens that had taken over the living rooms of most American households. It worked for a while.

One of the Town's most celebrated dramas had nothing to do with Hollywood.

On Sept. 25, 1953, during a screening of "I, the Jury," a criminal named John Elgin Johnson got into a blazing gunfight with FBI agents inside the theater.

The gunman fired away from a mezzanine phone booth. He killed FBI Agent J. Brady Murphy and hit Agent Raymond J. Fox. John Elgin Johnson did not make it out alive.

Newspaper reports said the film audience was unaware of the violence.

The Town closed about 10 years ago.

The latest chapter in the Town's story sounds like something from the plot of "It's a Wonderful Life."

Its owners, a limited partnership, are looking for a way in which this storied entertainment house could be donated to the University of Maryland's downtown campus.

How would the university use it?

Maybe the guardian angel of the James Stewart-Donna Reed-Lionel Barrymore film will work some wonders on this derelict chunk of another age.

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