Another screen gem stages its comeback

Revival: Part of a trend to salvage theaters, the transformation of the Carroll into an arts center rescues an important piece of Americana.

April 15, 2002|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

During Hollywood's Golden Age in the late 1930s, three movie houses stood on Westminster's Main Street -- the newest and grandest of them the art deco Carroll Theatre.

For the next four decades, the cinemas drew townspeople and farmers -- even members of the Baltimore Colts football team when they were at training camp at Western Maryland College -- out on the town Friday and Saturday nights to see the blockbusters of the day: Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, The Ten Commandments, 101 Dalmatians, and Star Wars.

But by the late 1970s, Carroll Theatre's competitors were gone: The State had burned down and the Opera House had closed. In the late 1980s, a multiplex opened in a new mall, sealing the fate of Carroll Theatre, which became home to a church.

Today, the marquee-less, gutted theater that stands at 91 W. Main St. is about to be revamped and take on a new role as a community arts center with classrooms, a gallery and a 250-seat theater.

The nearly $1 million renovation -- one of the most eagerly awaited projects in downtown Westminster -- is expected to be wrapped up by the end of the year.

"I have never felt the community behind a project so strongly as this," said Sandy Oxx, executive director of Carroll County Arts Council, the organization that will call the refurbished theater home. "It just had so many avenues of interest for different people in this community."

`Theaters are anchors'

By renovating Carroll Theatre as a community and performing arts center, Westminster is following the paths of other Maryland communities: Easton has the Avalon Theatre. Frederick boasts the Weinberg Center for the Arts (formerly the Tivoli movie palace). Hagerstown is home to the Maryland Theatre. In Baltimore, a multimillion-dollar project to restore the Hippodrome is afoot.

"Just as in malls big stores are anchors, historic theaters are anchors in economic revitalization," said Terrance L. Demas, executive director of the Baltimore-based League of Historic American Theatres, a network of people dedicated to theater restoration.

Local historians, avid moviegoers and others welcome Carroll Theatre's current transformation, recalling its long, colorful past. When the Carroll opened Nov. 26, 1937, the local newspaper, the Democratic Advocate, proclaimed it "in all respects the most completely modern building in this city."

The premiere movie, The Barrier, a dramatic thriller starring Leo Carrillo and Jean Parker, has long been forgotten. Today's moviegoers would be astonished by 10- and 15-cent tickets for matinees and 15- and 25-cent prices for evening shows.

Movies with bygone beauties such as Alice Faye, Betty Grable and June Haver regularly packed the house. In 1977, back-to-back sensations Star Wars (six weeks) and Smokey and the Bandit (five weeks) played there.

One family's link

The lives of several members of one Carroll County family are intertwined with the theater's nearly 50-year run: Nine members of the Brewer family worked at the 702-seat Carroll Theatre.

"It seemed like there was always a Brewer selling tickets or ushering," recalled state Sen. Larry E. Haines, a Carroll County Republican, whose last cinematic experience there was Patton in 1970. "When one grew out of the job, there was another one to take over."

Guy Brewer, 60, owner of Brewer's Market and a Westminster resident, started the family dynasty at the Carroll in 1955. Although he did "a little bit of everything," from running the projector to cleaning, his favorite job was greeting people as the ticket taker.

"Johnny Unitas used to come, Art Donovan," Brewer said of two famous Colts. "They used to spread themselves out over the seats."

Teammate Lenny Moore couldn't get into the then-whites-only theater and had to settle for the balcony at the State down the street.

The Carroll was not racially integrated until the mid-1960s.

Brewer's younger brother Earle, 56, now is owner of Esquire Hair Replacement Center two doors down from the old theater. The New Windsor resident saw racial upheaval during his 1959-1963 tenure at the theater.

"When I worked there, blacks weren't allowed," he said.

He was 15 and working as a ticket taker when he had to turn away busloads of black civil rights protesters, he said,

`Mixed feelings'

"It was pretty traumatic for a young guy. I had mixed feelings about it, and it gave me a chance to see another side of the story. I started to see a lot of injustice that needed to be straightened out," he said.

By the time Brewer's brother, Dean, started working at the Carroll in 1969, more duties were entailed. Dean Brewer, 48 and the No. 2 officer in Westminster's Police Department, picked up early policing skills as an usher.

"Sometimes we'd ask couples to take a breather," he said. "Once in a while fights would break out, and once I saw a guy pull out brass knuckles."

Neither smoking nor sodas were allowed in the auditorium.

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