Bringing old movie houses to life

Painting: An artist re-creates theaters from the 1930s and 1940s.

October 14, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Starting with old black-and-white photographs and fond memories, Bob Kramer uses watercolors to capture the dramatic architecture, glowing neon signs and neatly lettered marquees of theaters from Baltimore's past.

Most of the movie theaters that thrived in the 1930s and '40s are gone, having been abandoned or turned into parking lots, storefronts and churches. But Kramer has spent several years re-creating them - and the occasional playhouse - on paper as they appeared in their heyday.

"I think there should be some record of these entertainment palaces that existed at some point in time," Kramer said.

Kramer's watercolors of historic Baltimore theaters will be on display at Slayton House in Columbia's Wilde Lake Village Center through Nov. 13. A reception, with music and refreshments, will be held from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday .

Collages by Ellicott City artist George Sakkal are on exhibit at the same time in the Bill White Room at Slayton House.

Kramer is shy about telling his age but says he grew up during the Depression. He said he has been painting for 50 years but received no formal training. He went into advertising after graduating from high school in Dundalk, and worked as an art director and producer of television commercials.

A Columbia resident since 1968, he started painting more regularly when he retired nine years ago, particularly landscapes seen during his travels around the world. He has exhibited at Slayton House and at other local galleries.

Kramer said he became interested in painting theaters "a few years ago when I heard they were going to renovate the Hippodrome. I thought I'd like to paint that as it was in its prime."

That painting shows a crowd gathering under the 8,000-bulb marquee that advertises Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the 1936 film Swing Time. When it was done, he started painting some of the hundreds of other theaters - with names like Keith's, Boulevard, Town and Grand - that once operated in Baltimore and nearby neighborhoods.

Kramer uses photographs, news clippings and especially a 1974 book on Baltimore theaters written by Robert Headley to provide architectural details. Because the photographs are in black and white, "I guess at the colors or try to remember them," Kramer said. "It's real artistic license."

The final products are bright and stylized, with sharp, straight lines and meticulous details standing out against softer backgrounds made with broader strokes.

"I wanted [the paintings] to be strong and colorful," Kramer said. "I tried to show the theaters at their peak."

Kramer has added some of his own touches, such as a man putting letters on the marquee of the Alpha theater and Annette Funicello on the screen of the Edmondson Drive-in. Sometimes he chooses the films, entertainers and events he thinks should be listed on the theaters' signs.

"This [exhibit] just had a perfect theme," said Bernice Kish, Wilde Lake's village manager. "This is a community exhibit, and so many people will relate to it."

Kramer said he is excited by the subject because "not only do I love old buildings, I love the movies."

He said that during the Depression, "movie theaters were everywhere. ... There wasn't much else to do."

Kramer was an usher at the Stanley on North Howard Street when he was a senior in high school.

He is a member of the Theatre Historical Society of America, which documents and visits old theaters around the country, and the Free State Theatre Organ Society, which supports concerts on one of the few remaining theater organs, housed at Rice Auditorium at Spring Grove Hospital Center in Catonsville.

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