A return to the limelight

Opening: The art deco Carroll Theatre is transformed from a decaying relic into a cultural center and a showpiece for Westminster's Main Street.

April 05, 2003|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Once a 700-seat, art deco showcase for the golden age of Hollywood, the Carroll Theatre ended up rolling films for audiences as small as one. The moviehouse was, by then, debased, split in half to offer two screens in a last-gasp battle with the multiplex at the mall.

Now, 15 years after its last picture show, the theater's faM-gade is restored, its interior is refurbished, and neon shines from its rebuilt marquee.

On Main Street Westminster, it is, again, showtime.

The new Carroll Arts Center - which was dedicated yesterday in the first of a weekend of opening events - will be the site of art exhibits and classes, concerts and plays. It won't be the place to see the latest blockbuster release, but documentaries on artists will be shown.

The renovated theater will be home for the nonprofit Carroll County Arts Council. And for Westminster's civic and business leaders - who three years ago looked at a tired building and saw potential - it is the next step in bringing new life to Main Street.

"It becomes a cultural center of the town," said Westminster Common Council President Damian L. Halstad.

JoAnn Hunter, an Arts Council board member who contributed to last-minute preparations by hanging clocks and putting stickers on colorful hand clappers, said the arts center is an apt use for the reborn theater.

"I hate to see old buildings left to crumble when you can restore [them] to something so useful," she said.

Eugene Brewer was one of nine members of his family to have worked at the theater, starting in the 1950s.

"I think it's going to improve things at that end of the town," said Brewer, who worked at the theater as a teen-ager and, later, as a manager. "It's very good what they've done there, like putting back the marquee and being able to see the curtain fall back from the screen. Those are things that remind you of the old days."

Built in 1937 on land that sold for $10, the Carroll Theatre joined two other cinemas in town - and outlasted them. Generations of Carroll residents went there to see the biggest hits, film noir and second-run comedies.

Over the years, the theater was transformed, not always for the better. The ceiling was redone, covering up the original decorative molding. In 1973, the marquee was removed.

Halstad recalls taking in the Robert Downey Jr. film The Pick-Up Artist shortly before the theater closed in 1988. He was the only one in the audience.

For about a decade, the Church of the Open Door owned and used the building. About three years ago, city officials began to think seriously about buying the building.

Westminster's Main Street was by then trying to regain its status as a hub despite the challenge of chain stores and restaurants springing up on Route 140. It was one of seven Maryland areas targeted for historical and commercial revitalization.

The first phase of the effort focused on the city's east side, but progress was also evident on West Main Street. The old J.C. Penney building received a $750,000 face lift, Barnes-Bollinger Insurance Services expanded its offices and Harry's Main Street Grille reopened after an expansion. Refurbishing the old theater - and creating a home for the Arts Council, which had moved from one small location to another over the years - seemed a way to continue that movement.

"The thought we had when we first came up with the idea was that you could do all the things there an arts center needs - performing space, office space, a theater - and you could do it in a location that was perfect," said L. Gregory Pecoraro, a former city councilman and liaison to the Arts Council.

The city bought the theater using $310,000 in Open Space program money and began looking for renovation funds. Several large state, county and municipal grants paid for the $1.4 million project.

When work started, the theater was run-down and cluttered. The red vinyl theater seats were worn, and the plaster ceilings were crumbling.

Remodeling the interior required careful preservation of the historical elements of the theater, including decorative molding, tin ceilings and wood for the stairs. Photos of the old theater were used as guides to preserve the molding in the lobby and reproduce the marquee, said Kathleen P.S. Sherrill, the architect who designed the arts center.

Inside is a lobby with painstakingly restored salmon-and-green molding that welcomed moviegoers in the late 1930s. Past the lobby is an art gallery.

In the theater is a stage framed by a navy blue-and-gold border. The ceiling is at least 25 feet high, but the room has an intimate feel, perhaps because it has only a third of the seats of the original theater.

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