City movie theater to reopen as showcase for black films Playhouse on 25th St. starts new life Jan. 31

December 31, 1996|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Edward Gunts contributed to this article.

A new, independent movie house dedicated to showcasing films by and about African-Americans is scheduled to open in January in the former 9 West Playhouse on 25th Street.

The Heritage Playhouse Cinema plans to open Jan. 31 with the classic film "A Raisin in the Sun" in the old 9 West, the same theater where a generation of Baltimoreans drank their first espresso while waiting for the foreign films of directors such as Federico Fellini, Bernardo Bertolucci and Akira Kurosawa.

The new repertory film house will be operated by the Group 7 Media partnership, headed by Michael Johnson, a marketing chairman for Baltimore's Bicentennial Committee.

Johnson says one of his goals is to provide an outlet for the works of independent African-American filmmakers -- people like Julie Dash, who won critical acclaim for her 1992 film "Daughters of the Dust," and Haile Gerima, whose "Sankofa" drew large audiences in 1994 with virtually no promotion.

"Independent African-American filmmakers' obstacles are not the quality of their films," Johnson said, in announcing his plans. "It's having a location where they can show their films to a paying audience."

Johnson called the former 9 West Playhouse, which has been empty for most of the past 15 years, a classic movie house, adding that it retains "385 of the original seats that are very comfortable." Many who watched art films at the Playhouse will remember them fondly, big, wide and rockable.

"I feel that the filmmakers and the audience will have a first-class theater to see first-class film," Johnson said.

In addition to independent films, he hopes to show classic movies about African-Americans starring African-American actors, and offer studio previews.

Now unused, the 9 West Playhouse, which closed in 1981 after more than three decades as a movie theater, most recently housed a church.

The Group 7 Media partnership, formed to open the movie house, is a heterogeneous group that, Johnson has said, includes a banker, a firefighter, an attorney, a developer, a city and a federal employee.

Group 7 signed a lease last week with the owners, the Play-house Partnership, which consists of Baltimore businessmen Mel Gordon and Alan Shecter.

Former National Basketball Association star Earvin "Magic" Johnson has been highly successful with a string of theaters he's opened in poor, urban neighborhoods in South Central Los Angeles. He plans to open 14 multiplex movies of 12 to 14 screens in cities across the country, including one in Baltimore in 1998.

Japan's Sony Corp. is a partner with Magic Johnson and helps provide financing. The Baltimore project is expected to be a $10.5 million, 12-screen theater, which will need 2 or 3 acres and parking for 1,300 cars.

John Standiford, co-owner of the Charles Theatre, about six blocks south of the Playhouse on Charles Street, welcomes the reincarnation of the old theater. The more in-town theaters the better, he says.

"They'll probably have an enthusiastic audience," says Standiford, whose Charles shows offbeat first-run films with an occasional revival.

"I know there's a desire to see these films, a large audience," he says. "I certainly hope it works."

But, he warns, all one-screen theaters have a difficult time. The overhead is not much different than multiplex movie theaters, and distributors don't care enough about the marginal income they'll make to cater to one-screen houses.

The planned reopening of the movie theater joins a spurt of development along the 25th Street corridor, including the construction of a Safeway supermarket on Charles, that marks an uptick in the vitality of the south end of Charles Village.

The Jan. 31 opening will begin with a reception at 8 p.m., followed by the showing of the film at 9 p.m.

Tracy Ward Durkin, administrator of the Charles Village Community Benefits District, said the theater fits in with the group's master plan for reviving the area.

"It's a great use for the building, and it's going to be a terrific asset for the community," she said. "We hope they'll be there for many years to come."

Pub Date: 12/31/96

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