Recalling Baltimore theater district's heyday

January 05, 2002|By JACQUES KELLY

I BOLTED out the front door one cold night this week to meet friends for a movie. I promised to meet them at 7 and figured I could cut my time fairly close -- distances in the city are short, and it's amazing how quickly you can get around Baltimore when you're not afraid of the geography.

Still, I received a short and sweet lesson in urban misconceptions when I got to the door of the Charles Theatre. It being a chilly Wednesday night in what I assumed was an off-the-beaten-track place, I thought, the lobby would be empty. Wrong. The theater at Charles and Lafayette was full of people, of all ages. I nearly missed the start of the picture because there were so many patrons in line.

A few years ago, who would have thought that an old transit vehicles barn would flourish as a multi-screen movie house? Who would have thought that the closure of the Charles Street Bridge over the MARC and Amtrak rails would do little to dim the lights in this part of town? And who would have thought, I thought as I sought my friends, that so many other old acquaintances would have been in the audience for The Shipping News?

Despite the adversities that plague this city, I always am amazed at its ability to fight back, succeed -- and perhaps prosper, if ever on a Baltimore-style budget.

Like so many Baltimoreans, I have a deep affection for Charles Street -- and so many recollections of it both in the area near the train station and throughout its long course. (I'm sure my brother Eddie is not so delighted. He, as a pedestrian, recently broke his foot in a Charles Street pothole near the Cross Street Market.)

Perhaps the fact that the railroad bridge has shut the street has added to its charm. The traffic interruption -- no cars tearing northward at 50 mph -- has tamed this little quarter of Baltimore.

I was reminded of some very laid-back shopping in the old North Avenue Market in the 1960s -- and many a visit to the nearby Parkway Theatre for cinematic treats. This is a spot where I want to be, where I want to enjoy the city.

There used to be a newspaper vendor at Charles and North, where my family bought exotic editions of the local papers at equally exotic hours. My late mother always preferred reading this paper, a morning paper, in its first-edition incarnation because she was definitely not an a.m. person. On late night trips here, she informed me in the voice of maternal authority that this neighborhood always had a certain underworld character.

She said it was full of characters who skirted the law. She had no problem with this dubious pedigree because this condition was common knowledge in Baltimore. Every city needed corners where you could place an illegal bet or whatever.

It must have been 20 or more years ago that an entrepreneur briefly reopened the old Aurora Theatre on East North Avenue. It was a glittering first night. Mom said she wanted to tag along because she'd been to the Aurora in its silent-picture days and felt entitled to be a part of the current scene. As we walked along North Avenue and waited to hail a cab, she amazed me as she correctly identified undercover police officers assigned to the opening night.

How was she so accurate? Their shoes. Undercover police officers wear good shoes, not the civilians' beat-up footwear.

I've already dropped the names of a handful of movie houses -- extant and otherwise -- in the Charles and North neighborhood and haven't even mentioned the Everyman Theatre. What I'm thinking about is the promise and potential that this chunk of Baltimore holds. And maybe, on some future January night, the lobbies of more theaters will be lighted and filled, the restaurants will be crowded and there will be no need for plainclothes cops.

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