Theaters in one neighborhood drew finest films

Screens: The Charles Street-North Avenue area had several venues for art-house movies.

April 24, 1999|By Jacques Kelly

If Baltimore is a city with 100 neighborhoods, there was a time when we must have had twice as many movie theaters. The neighborhoods have fared better than the many closed or demolished film houses -- all those Ideals, Rexes, Ambassadors and Dunbars -- so it's sweet news when one of the city's old film shrines survives, expands and, let us hope, prospers.

I gulped this week when I went past the Charles Theatre the night before its gala reopening. It looked a mess. I went by again, 24 hours later. Voila! There was a vertical sign, proclaiming for all Baltimore that the Charles was alive and indeed much enlarged.

I was delighted. I've spent some of my happiest hours of film-going in this small chunk of Baltimore's geography.

The newly expanded Charles complex now has five screens -- the same number we once had in this neighborhood. I speak of the old Film Center (an early victim of North Avenue theater closings), the wondrous Parkway (aka Five West), and the Aurora (aka the Seven East). And, of course, there was the Charles itself, long the art house, along with the Playhouse on 25th Street.

Thirty-some years ago, about the same time that the Charles Street-North Avenue stem was entrenched as the art film rialto of Baltimore, one of my Jesuit high school teachers ordered me to the Charles to see Paul Scofield in "A Man for All Seasons."

Baltimore in those days needed a good cleaning, along with more people to appreciate the city's charms. But few movie fans who dropped by the old Charles, Parkway or the Playhouse for one of those classic French, English or German movies have a bad memory of this little wedge of filmdom.

In those days, there was a distinct pecking order to the Charles neighborhood screens. The smartest art house was the Playhouse on 25th Street at Charles. The Charles Theatre and the Five West ranked next. The old Aurora was the least of the bunch.

I think my introduction to the batch of them came from a Charles Village neighbor and friend, Dorothy Croswell, a devoted reader of murder mysteries. With a firm, no-options-permitted personality, she dictated that we'd be off to see Margaret Rutherford in "Murder Ahoy" (a movie regularly shown on cable television today).

In this case, life imitated art, because Dorothy possessed more than a few of the personality characteristics of "Murder Ahoy's" sleuth, Miss Jane Marple. She was unmarried, a sharp observer of people and human nature, carried large handbags, wore thick-soled shoes, liked a good mystery and didn't drive a car. Who better to introduce me to one of the great 1960s English comedies?

A few years later, Greg Mank, a friend of mine from Loyola High School, suggested a trip to Charles and North and came in all the way from Glen Arm. Greg knew plenty about movies and even subscribed to a film history magazine, the type of publication only sold at Abe Sherman's news stand at Park and Mulberry.

We walked -- you'd do just about anything to beat the bus fare -- from Guilford and 29th to North and Charles to the old Seven East, which for decades before traded under the name Aurora.

It was a funny old place, with a basement that still had seven dusty duckpin bowling lanes, unused, of course, because they never had automatic pin-setters installed.

The movie Greg selected was "Casablanca," then in a re-release that made a generation of young film-goers into fans of classic black-and-white Hollywood fare.

It was one of those days that I will never forget -- a perfect print on the big screen of Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Raines, Sidney Greenstreet, Dooley Wilson and Peter Lorre. I was hooked on the spot.

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