Former projectionist tries to revive Charles Theatre Interview: The president of the ailing art-film movie house thinks installation of a second screen might solve some problems.

Catching Up With . . . John Standiford

September 08, 1996|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

John Standiford, president and would-be resuscitator of the Charles Theatre, is sitting in his comfortably disheveled second-story office on a Friday afternoon anticipating tonight's gate. A new movie, "Celestial Clockwork," which he doesn't like very much, is beginning its run this evening, as is "Lone Star" a critically acclaimed film that Standiford is counting on for a needed infusion of cash.

Unfortunately, money -- and the lack thereof -- is in the forefront of Standiford's mind these days. Not to the exclusion of the movies the Charles shows but in relation to them. For instance, about the theater's recent revival of Catherine Deneuve's "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" he says glumly, "It didn't do well; I was disappointed."

It's been almost two years since failing finances forced the Charles' closing for three months. Standiford was a projectionist and equipment manager at the time. More important for the art house during its moment of crisis, Standiford is also the nephew of Baltimore builder/contractor James "Buzzy" Cusack. With the theater squarely facing extinction after 60 years in operation, Standiford persuaded Cusack to go into partnership with him to take over the Charles and make one last effort to revive it.

This is where the story's happy ending normally would begin. But like many of the art films that it shows, the Charles hasn't yet reached its uplifting conclusion, if ever there is to be one. The Charles is still open, Standiford allows, but just barely.

"It's sort of scary how close to the edge we are," he says.

Standiford started coming to the Charles when he was attending Friends School as a teen-ager. At 32, he doesn't seem much older now, with tousled brown hair and dressed in shorts and sandals; his shirttails are out at the waist. But it is less his appearance than his manner that suggests youth. The Charles' peril seems to bemuse more than trouble him, even as he allows that the theater's continuing existence occupies most of his waking thoughts.

"It's all that I spend my time doing, but I'm skeptical about the ability of the theater to survive," he says. "It wouldn't take much to tip things the wrong way."

A memorable lineage

While the Charles may lack the grandeur of Baltimore's other single-screen theater, the Senator, it is an exceedingly comfortable place to see a film. It also boasts a rarity these days, an actual silver-coated screen, which aficionados insist creates the most vivid pictures. The Charles also has an interesting lineage. It is in a building constructed as a steam manufacturing plant for cable cars that was later converted to the Times Theater, a movie house that showed films all night long to accommodate shift workers from Sparrows Point. In 1962, it became the Charles and began its bohemian phase, which Standiford hopes has not run its course.

But the dangers that have threatened the theater for a decade have not receded. Standiford says that the perception of high crime in the area north of Pennsylvania Station keeps much of the Charles' natural constituency -- suburbanites -- away. While he acknowledges that the neighborhood attracts a lot of panhandlers and that cars parked along Lanvale Street are often vandalized, he claims the situation has greatly improved. He expects the erection of a security kiosk on a nearby street corner will further help.

Whether perceptions will change fast enough to rescue the Charles remains an open question.

Expansion plan

So what do Standiford and Cusack plan to do? Expand, of course.

The two have hatched a plan to take over the building next door -- once home to the Famous Ballroom -- to put up a second screen. Now all they need is the financing for the extensive renovations.

Why two screens when one seems too many at that location?

Leverage, Standiford explains. Film distributors don't like booking their movies in a single-screen theater because they know the theater owner will want to unload a movie quickly if it fails to attract an audience immediately. Multi-screen theaters are willing to put up with a sluggishly performing film if they know their other screens are pulling in customers.

With only one screen, Standiford says, the Charles cannot land some of the more commercially successful art films, such as "Cold Comfort Farm" and "Stealing Beauty," which tend to show up regularly at the nearby Rotunda. (The Rotunda also benefits from being part of the Sony Theater chain, which has a direct relationship with Miramax and Fine Line, says Standiford.) A second screen, Standiford and Cusack seem convinced, would enable the Charles to grab some of those popular films.

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