Talkies came to the Metropolitan Theater: The movie palace at North and Pennsylvania avenues helped usher in an era when it showed 'The Jazz Singer' in 1928.

Remember When

November 30, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

If Baltimore audiences were thrilled by George Jessel's stage performance in "The Jazz Singer" at Ford's Theater during the fall of 1927, a greater thrill awaited them Jan. 8, 1928, at the Metropolitan Theater at North and Pennsylvania avenues.

As the audience settled down to listen to "an overture which will be heard on the Vitaphone preceding the picture entitled 'The Jazz Singer,' " reported The Sun, they anxiously waited for their participation in movie history.

As Al Jolson, in the film adaptation of Samuel Raphaelson's play, flickered before them, they were about to hear the first words ever delivered from the screen: "You ain't heard nothin' yet, folks. Just listen," said Jolson.

Called the Met by Baltimoreans, the famous first-run movie palace, which had a reputation for showing Warner Bros.' sound films, had made history a year earlier when it featured "Don Juan." The film had recorded music but no dialogue.

The Jolson film, which ran for months at the theater, was followed by "The Lights of New York," a film that historians have identified as the first full-length all-talking movie.

The "Jazz Singer," which was only part-sound and featured Jolson singing "Mother o' Mine" and "Kol Nidre," had opened to packed houses at New York's Strand Theater Oct. 6, 1927.

Other actors in the film included Warner Oland, who later became known as Charlie Chan, Mary McVoy and William Demarest, who starred during the 1960s on "My Three sons."

Audiences came from all over Baltimore and Washington. They packed No. 13 streetcars and stood in lines to buy tickets to hear and see the first talking movie.

'The new marvel'

"The audience gaped at the new marvel and talkies were on their way," reported The Sun. The Evening Sun critic was just as effusive: "Every time Al Jolson sang we broke out in a beautiful rash of duck dimples. We always get slightly balmy anytime we hear Jolson sing and hearing him sing at the Metropolitan with the aid of Vitaphone is just as good, if you ask us, as hearing him in the flesh. In some respects it's better, because you seem much, much closer to him."

The Metropolitan was unusual when it was opened by Mayor William F. Broening Dec. 15, 1922, because it was not located downtown and it showed first-run pictures.

Built in the silent-movie era at a cost of $325,000, the theater featured, in addition to its domed ceiling covered in gold leaf with intricate plaster detailing, a large balcony noted for its plaster griffins and Greek-influenced motifs and a pipe organ whose music gushed from chambers located on either side of the proscenium arch.

The seating capacity was about 1,450 -- 900 on the main floor and 550 in the balcony. The mezzanine was described as being "a delightful place for tete-a-tetes -- comfortably furnished with wicker furniture."

Designed by the Baltimore architect Otto Simonson, the building also included billiard rooms, bowling alleys, offices and a drugstore. Two entrances, one at the corner of North and Pennsylvania avenues and another on West North Avenue, admitted patrons through arched French doors and under a mock balcony facing North Avenue.

"It is designed along Colonial lines and the most modern improvements for motion picture theaters have been incorporated in the structure," reported The Sun in 1922.

"Terra cotta, granite, red brick were the materials used in constructing the facade. At each entrance there are spacious doorways over which marquees have been hung. Both lobbies and the foyers are furnished with a wainscoting of green Italian marble and have floors of terrazzo.

"Mulberry, ivory, gray and gold are the colors that have been used throughout the playhouse for decorations and draperies. The material used for the draperies will be mulberry colored tapestry. The chairs are of ebony with mulberry colored leather."

The Evening Sun described the Metropolitan as being of " 'unsurpassed beauty and in the bloom of youth.' "

It was one of the first movie theaters in Baltimore to have an integration policy that encouraged blacks to attend its films.

However, time was not kind to the Met. In July 1977, it showed its last film and went dark. Its marquee no longer advertised Hollywood's latest releases. Instead, a "closed for repairs" sign greeted motorists and pedestrians.

In 1978, the theater's draperies, brass rails, mirrors, fountains and chandeliers went under the auctioneer's gavel.

But the Met had one last flourish for its fans before being torn down for subway construction.

Vandals with a sense of humor -- or history -- broke into the Met and threw an electrical switch that illuminated the doomed theater's big marquee for one last time.

Today, a plaza and drugstore occupy the site.

Pub Date: 11/30/97

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