Carroll arts council marks center's first anniversary

Former theater's revival fosters cultural expansion

April 02, 2004|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

Since it opened a year ago Sunday, the neon lights on the Carroll Arts Center's rebuilt marquee have drawn hundreds of patrons and visitors to the art deco building on Main Street.

From art exhibits and classes to concerts and screenings, the former movie house has brought new life to downtown Westminster. The former Carroll Theatre now houses a 263-seat theater, an art gallery, two art classrooms and offices, as well as the nonprofit Carroll County Arts Council.

"It's come a long way," Westminster Councilman Robert P. Wack said of the center. "It's a huge asset to downtown and a cultural resource not just for the city but for the entire county."

Sandy Oxx, the arts council's executive director, said that when the arts council began the fund raising and renovations, the community got behind the project quickly and generously.

"Part of me was worried. ... Will they come out in the rain to see a movie they never heard of?" she said. "Would people rent the facility? A lot of my worst fears, fortunately, did not come true."

Residents filled the center's seats for various activities, including screenings of old black-and-white movies, concerts and plays.

The center put on 25 live performances and 17 movie screenings in the past year - not including shows and concerts organized by local civic groups that rented the theater.

Some of the center's most popular events have included the local production of Love Letters on Valentine's Day and monthly movie showings that included classics such as Gone With the Wind and Singin' in the Rain.

"We've been very encouraged by the financial support and attendance," Oxx said, adding that the center probably averaged 400 to 600 people a month for shows. "We are still young, growing and learning."

The former movie house had long been a fixture on Main Street. Built in 1937, the Carroll Theatre outlasted two other cinemas in town and became a favorite hangout for generations of county residents.

Westminster Councilman Thomas Ferguson, an ex-officio arts council board member, recalled taking his wife, Sandy, to the movie house for their first date more than 40 years ago.

They watched the original Parent Trap.

"We have fond memories not only because it was the place where we had our first date, but the movie theater was a big attraction in the 1950s," Ferguson said.

"Growing up in Westminster, it was a central part of the entertainment for downtown," he said. "To see it reborn the way it has, I think it's a wonderful re-addition to the fabric of downtown."

After the theater closed in 1988, the Church of the Open Door used the building for about a decade.

Several years ago, city officials focused on the movie house as part of their efforts to revitalize Main Street.

The city bought the theater with $310,000 in state grants from Program Open Space. State, county and municipal grants paid for the $1.4 million renovations.

"Certainly the first year has been a learning experience for everyone, including the city," Ferguson said.

"I think personally, from the perspective of being on the city council and as a citizen, it's really a centerpiece and anchor for the continuing redevelopment of downtown. ... The city is committed to continuing to support the facility and the needs of the arts council as best as we can."

In the coming years, Oxx said, the arts council would like to see the center continue to grow and to promote and support the arts in the county.

"Because of the appearance of our facade, we look like a movie theater," Oxx said. But "it's not just a place to come on a Saturday night for a movie. We hope people would make it part of their lunch hour, their daily routine."

To celebrate its first anniversary Sunday, the arts center will feature a movie representing the golden era of Hollywood, when the former Carroll Theatre was built. Casablanca is scheduled to be shown at 2 p.m.

Arts council members will be admitted free; tickets for nonmembers are $5 for adults and $4 for children younger than 12 and seniors older than 60.

For information, call 410- 848-7272.

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