The Charles to become the Charleses Movies: The venerable art-house theater will be adding four more screens. Improved streetscaping and security are also in the cards.

October 11, 1997|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Four years ago, Baltimore could barely support one screen at the Charles Theater.

Now, its owners are gambling that there are enough cinephiles in town to support five.

John Standiford and James "Buzz" Cusack, who took over and re-opened the theater in March 1994 after it had been closed for three months, are planning to expand into the vacant concert hall next door, add four screens and more than double the theater's overall seating capacity.

The Charles has carved out a niche for itself among Baltimore moviegoers by concentrating on independent films and art-house flicks -- despite a location that's a little too urban for some tastes.

"A lot of people just don't want to come into the city at all," says Cusack. "We do have an uphill battle. The perception is probably worse than the reality, but we do have a problem."

That problem, he says, should be abated by a combination of improved streetscaping and extra security, including a planned police koban, or mini-station, at the corner of Charles and Lanvale.

"We need to make it an interesting, welcoming place to be," Cusack says.

Expansion, its operators say, combined with other neighborhood improvements and increased security, will enable the Charles to show more movies and attract more people. Attendance, they predict, will not be a problem.

"The theater does well when compared to other theaters in the area," Standiford says. "When we played 'The Full Monty' at the same time as the Towson Commons, Valley Center and Columbia Palace, we did the best of any of those theaters."

"When we get the movies that we want to get, we can do pretty well," adds Cusack. "This expansion will put us in the position to get more of the movies that we want to get."

Area community associations are enthusiastically supporting the plans, which would bring more people into what has been a decaying commercial district.

"I think it sounds terrific," says Beverly Fuller, executive director of the Midtown Community Benefits District. "There isn't a lot of pedestrian traffic in the area, with the exception of people commuting to and from Penn Station. And any time there are more people on the street, the better the atmosphere is."

Adding screens would also allow the Charles to revisit its days as a repertory cinema, providing big-screen showings of older movies usually relegated to television and videotape. The Charles' repertory life is currently limited to Saturday mornings and Monday evenings.

The expansion plans, which will be presented at a zoning hearing scheduled for 1 p.m. Oct. 21 at City Hall, would not affect the present 485-seat Charles, which has been operating out of the southern half of a turn-of-the-century cable-car barn since 1939, when it opened as the Times Theater.

Instead, four additional screens would be set up in the northern end of the old barn, which once housed the Famous Ballroom, a longtime big-band and jazz showcase that closed in the late 1970s. It was later used as a nightclub and has been vacant since 1986.

The Everyman Theater, located in the same block, would remain and possibly expand.

Under the plans, the largest of the Charles' four new theaters would seat 250, the smallest, 100. The remaining two theaters would each seat 150. The lobby of the current Charles would house the re-located Cafe Metropol, which now sits just north of the theater.

Cusack and Standiford say they are still putting together financing for the $1.3 million project. With luck, they'll start renovation work in December and finish within nine months.

Pub Date: 10/11/97

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