Coming to a theater near you: a sense of the city's rebirth

April 25, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ON THE BLEARY morning after last week's glorious reopening of the Charles Theatre, here stood Vincent Lancisi, creative director of the Everyman Theatre, gazing upon the endearing everyday charms of wondrous Charles Street.

He saw the Metro Coin-Op Laundromat. Ah, glamour. He saw a brand-new parking lot and an indoor garage next to it. Ah, romance. And there was the Club Charles, and the Zodiac, and the empty remains of the former Joel's Luncheonette with all its potential for new life. Grand, grand, and maybe grand.

Lancisi stood in front of the Everyman, preparing to open its fifth season of live theater this week, and warmed himself with possibilities of things to come on his block of North Charles Street, from professional theater to touch our hearts to cleaners symbolizing ordinary neighborhood stability.

The Everyman's next-door neighbor is the Charles Theatre. The night before, they'd staged the reopening of the venerable movie house and invited over a few friends, and what seemed like the immediate world showed up for free champagne and popcorn, for movies and for a sense of possibilities in a city whose pieces are inevitably dying and later, almost inevitably, being reborn.

"New life for the city," pronounced Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the lieutenant governor, as she looked over the Charles' opening-night crowd. "A stunning revitalization of the neighborhood. Baltimore is Film City."

"A wonderful contribution to the life of our city," said

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

"It's a sign of our ability to make a small investment into a great one," said M. Jay Brodie, head of the Baltimore Development Corp. "It reminds me of that scene in `Sunset Boulevard' where William Holden sees Gloria Swanson coming down the staircase the first time and says, `I remember you. You used to be big in movies.' And she says, `I'm still big. It's the movies that got small.' "

You need a road map for his analogy? Charles Street can still be big. The city of Baltimore can still be great. It's the mind-set that got small over the last decade of crumbling houses, and streets riddled by gunfire and drugs, and the caretakers at City Hall reacting with indifference or indecision.

And now, on the morning after the Charles Theatre's reopening -- the same day that the Maryland Film Festival would simultaneously open at the Charles and the Senator -- here was Vincent Lancisi in front of the Everyman, letting all sorts of potential wash over him.

"What's happening here," he said, "is fantastic. I'm telling you that in all honesty. It was a sad block, we all know, and everybody said, `How can the city let this happen?' But that's history now."

He looked at his neighbors up and down both sides of the street: pretty solid businesses. He saw the University of Baltimore two blocks south with its nearby restaurants and bars, and Penn Station a block closer and there, at Charles and Lanvale just north of the movie theater, he saw some of the glue holding his block's businesses together: the new city police kiosk, which is manned 21 hours a day and creates a presence that has taken some of the chill out of the neighborhood.

"Oh, sure, it's made a difference," Lancisi said. "People worry. We never heard much about assaults, which everybody worries about. But we used to hear about panhandlers, about cars on the side streets getting broken into. You don't hear about that anymore."

In the same week the city released PlanBaltimore, its blueprint for the next 20 years (and document of its decline), it's nice to see some things happening now.

But Wednesday night, as the Charles reopened its doors and this wondrous swarm of people filled the lobby and the street outside and all five of its theaters, the question in many minds was simple: Will enough people show up often enough for the place to survive?

It'll be a niche operation. For all those with grown-up sensibilities grown exasperated with the standard movie fare at suburban multiplex theaters -- car chases and electronics instead of story lines -- the Charles will offer art films, imports and revived classics.

The market for intelligent movies is here. The question is: Will those in suburbia make the trek downtown or stay away because they imagine it's too far to come, or too dicey once they arrive?

"We're trying to put the pieces of Charles Street together," Brodie said on opening night, "and this theater's a very important gold nugget for us."

The next morning, there was Vincent Lancisi at the Everyman.

"You know what would really make this block?" he said. He pointed toward the old Chesapeake Restaurant, closed for too many years now but once one of the city's elegant ladies. "Reopen the restaurant and keep the name. They wouldn't have to make it upscale. Just make sure they've got crab cakes on the menu. Then you'll bring people."

Maybe such a thing could happen. They reopened the Charles Theatre last week, and everybody stood there and imagined all sorts of lovely possibilities.

Pub Date: 4/25/99

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