Arts center an active site one year after opening

Transformation: The renovated theater houses classes and exhibits.

April 25, 2004|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Of all the events held at the Carroll Arts Center in its inaugural year, a funeral for a celebrated magician was the last thing executive director Sandy Oxx thought the organization would coordinate.

But on a hot summer morning in July, that's what happened when Ray-Mond, The Final Curtain, brought fans, family and other magicians to where the renowned conjurer performed more than six decades ago. They flocked to what was once a Westminster art deco movie house, now transformed into a venue for exhibits, screenings and art classes.

The renovated theater, at 91 W. Main St., is the new home to the nonprofit Carroll County Arts Council, which moved last year from its basement office down the street. The Carroll Arts Center is considered by Westminster's leaders to be the next step in bringing new life to Main Street.

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

A year after it opened its doors to Carroll County, the center is a hub of activity, with home-schoolers taking music lessons upstairs, a gallery that celebrates local artists and movie nights with packed audiences.

"An arts center is a staple of so many communities, I thought it was unusual we had no facility like this for so long," Oxx said. "I'm so glad I don't have to go to the Charles. I'm so glad to see thought-provoking art."

Her goal, she said, is to give visitors to the center things they can't find elsewhere.

Even though the center's facade resembles the original art deco theater, Oxx wanted to make sure people knew the center would be more than a screening room.

Adults who want to indulge in the arts have the choice of several classes each season, including Painting Techniques, Basic Collage Jewelry and Art Book in a Box. Kids can also tag along or be left to their own devices in Creative Kids Camp and visual arts classes such as Mommy & Me Art, Basic 3-D Design and the Clay Mask workshop.

For those who would rather look than do, collections of art rotate about every six weeks in the main gallery just beyond the foyer, where sculptures from a previous show and mementos from the theater's past greet visitors. Recently a printmaking show filled the gallery.

The arts center has become a place where people can meet artists and where local artists can mix with colleagues. This year, visitors have contemplated - and sometimes bought - art focusing on women and African-American culture, as well as metal sculpture.

Although the fine arts have a firm foothold at the center, performers are also drawn there. The center brought back the marquee that gave the old movie house its distinctive small-town feel and refurbished the theater into the center's crown jewel. Here, worn red vinyl seats gave way to a new stage, a grand curtain and more than 200 comfortable seats.

"Everyone wants to be on the stage," Oxx said.

In the past year, she said, the office has been flooded with requests and reservations. Under the spotlights, the stage has featured such varied performances as slapstick comedy and Bolivian bands.

And Oxx said she could never forget the funeral for magician Raymond M. Corbin.

"I never expected that," Oxx said. "I never had to move a dead body before."

Ray-Mond was brought back on stage for a final tribute to the magician who wowed audiences in 1937 as the opening act for the debut of the Carroll Theatre. It was Westminster's newest showcase during Hollywood's golden age.

The theater was built in 1937 on land that sold for $10, and joined two other cinemas in town and outlasted them. Generations of Carroll residents ate popcorn while watching blockbusters, film noir and second-run comedies.

But over the years, the theater was transformed. In 1973, the marquee was removed and the era of the multiplex theaters soon closed the historic movie house.

The 700-seat Carroll Theatre rolled its last picture 16 years ago, but its resurrection includes remnants of its past: original molding, fixtures and an old ticket-taking machine. The homage to the theater's past was one of several ways that the old and new intersect in this building, which underwent renovations in 2002 and opened in April 2003.

As much as Oxx has tried to stress the multifunctional nature of the arts center, she acknowledges that the movies are still a big draw, though she has to deal with scraping gum from the carpet and picking up popcorn in the aisles.

It's a costly event for the nonprofit group, Oxx said, because of the cost of electricity, renting the reel, and manning the concession area and box office. But, she said, people love the movies.

The arts center recently showed Casablanca free for members. Another classic that has graced the marquee is Gone With the Wind.

The center also incorporates themes with the movies. Mary Badham, the actress who played Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, appeared at a screening of the movie this year.

Foreign films that were shown every Friday night in February drew crowds that braved ice and snow storms to see Rabbit-Proof Fence and Cinema Paradiso.

Oxx wants the center to be a showcase for local talent too, so the arts council is putting on its own version of American Idol by screening the tapes of acts (as many as six people), then judging finalists at Art in the Park, a festival held every year the first Saturday of June at City Hall Park. The winner receives a free concert in the main auditorium. Entries were due at the beginning of the month.

For more information, contact the Carroll County Arts Council, 91 W. Main St., Westminster. 410-848-7272.

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