End of another show at Playhouse 25th Street: Failing to draw crowds, cinema featuring African-American films closes.

December 30, 1997

ADD THE NAME of the Heritage Playhouse Theater to the list of Baltimore cultural institutions that ran into trouble this year. The cinema specializing in African-American films closed more than a month ago. An operator showing Asian films then briefly took over. But signs in English and Korean now declare that the movie house at 9 W. 25th Street is for sale.

In February, when Michael Johnson and his partners reopened the Playhouse Theater, which had been dark for 15 years, they seemed to be in the right place at the right time. The theater was near a spanking-new big supermarket that was bringing in people from outside the Charles Village neighborhood.

Nationally, former basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson was talking about building 13 multiplexes targeted for black audiences and Black Entertainment Television had announced plans to launch the nation's first satellite and cable channel specializing in African-American films.

The Heritage Playhouse Theater never quite took off. The group bookings by churches and social organization essential to fill the seats failed to materialize. And many of the features shown seemed to be classics that can often be found on cable channels -- or are readily available from video stores. The theater, which operated mainly on weekends but seldom had money to advertise, soon was forgotten by even those who knew it existed.

The Heritage Playhouse Theater's demise is a pity. Many black film classics are truly American classics. But seeing rough gems like the movies Harlem Renaissance figure Oscar Micheaux shot between 1918 and the 1930s is nearly impossible.

Most cities -- not just Baltimore -- simply do not have a venue where these cinema classics can be seen with any regularity. And film festivals showing movies from Africa and the African diaspora in Toronto, Canada, and elsewhere don't fill the bill. Indiana University's Black Film Center and Archive is no closer. At the very least, Baltimore's existing art houses ought to add seldom-seen black film classics to their repertoire. With proper publicity, they could develop quite a following.

Pub Date: 12/30/97

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