Curtain goes up on new theater Rebirth: Seven partners bring dusty movie house back to life, hoping a bill of serious black films will restore its luster as a cultural center.

February 01, 1997|By Janice D'Arcy | Janice D'Arcy,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Ever since the 9 West Playhouse closed in 1981, the defunct theater on 25th Street just off Charles has stood as a sad reminder of the loss of one of Baltimore's cultural icons. Last night the theater woke up -- with a vengeance.

Hundreds of luminaries from Baltimore's arts community joined politicians and film aficionados to celebrate the opening of the new Heritage Playhouse Cinema. They packed the refurbished single-screen movie house to celebrate the idea that the Heritage will, like its predecessor, become a cultural focal point in Baltimore.

"These aren't going to be today's movies, all about pop, bam, splash," said Michael Johnson, who heads the seven-member partnership that will operate the independent theater. "These are going to be movies you actually have to listen to. Movies you can learn something from."

Johnson and his partners, all of whom are African-Americans, plan to showcase movies made between the 1920s and 1960s that feature dignified black characters

But the former University of Maryland film major was quick to point out, "We're not just going to play African-American classics, we're going to play American classics."

Last night's showing of "Raisin in the Sun" launched the Heritage's Black History Month Film Festival -- a series of films by and about African-Americans that will run through this month.

Beginning in March, the theater will show a variety of classic movies. In addition, jazz, blues and gospel concerts are scheduled, as well as childrens' matinees featuring magicians, and bite-size (30-minute) lunchtime screenings.

"We're going to tap into the untapped market of people who want an intimate setting, of people who want to go out and enjoy themselves, of people who want to go out in a safe neighborhood," said Irvin Lewis, Johnson's brother-in-law and business partner.

"It's a great idea and I think it will grow," said Kelly Waid, an opening night guest swathed in velvet. "With their ideas and the community interest, this place is going to be as big as lightning."

The idea for the new cinema was hatched last March.

As they tell it, Johnson and Lewis had pulled over on Charles Street to get a newspaper and, as if simultaneously tapped on the shoulder, both glanced behind them. There, across the street, where a cracked marquee loomed over a dilapidated building, Johnson and Lewis saw their future.

Under the dirt, they envisioned the extravagant movie houses of their youth.

Soon after, Johnson quit his job as an advertising executive and, with Lewis and five others, formed Group 7 Media. In December, the partners leased the theater and began a frenzied restoration, relying on about $32,000 of their own money, donated supplies and friends who spent evenings painting and lifting.

"This has really been a community effort," Johnson said.

In just seven weeks, the partners and their friends transformed what Johnson described as a "dirty, mucky, smelly, stinky" space into an old-fashioned theater.

The Heritage has heavy velvet drapes, an enormous 18-by-50-foot screen and wide chairs with thick cushions. Its foyer is decorated with a hand-painted mural of fountains and spotlights. At the candy counter, Black Crows licorice -- one of Johnson's childhood favorites -- is next to the Milk Duds.

"This wasn't new construction, this was refurbishment. We tried very hard to retain the spirit of this place," Johnson said. He mined junkyards and second-hand stores for many of the reborn theater's accessories.

"It's historical this way. I'm glad they're keeping the character of the old theater. It adds more substance," said Tessa Hill, an employee with the city Housing Commission who attended last night's party. "Sometimes older is better."

More renovation is planned. The Heritage marquee still needs letters and blinking lights. The movie screen has a foot-long rip, the carpet is a bit frayed, and bare brick peeks from under the theater's black drapes.

Money, though, will be tight for a while, Johnson admits.

"We knew and we know we're not going to be millionaires off this," Johnson laughs, "but there are enough resources in this community for the theater to be maintained."

Pub Date: 2/01/97

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