Neighbors oppose change to X-rated movie house

Upper Fells Point's Apex would become adult club

December 20, 2004|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

When do community leaders rally around an X-rated movie theater?

When it's a choice between that and a strip club.

The owners of the Apex theater on South Broadway in Upper Fells Point, a longtime home for X-rated movies and something of a Baltimore landmark, want to turn the aging cinema into a private adult entertainment club.

Although city zoning officials initially rejected KMI Entertainment's proposal, the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals is scheduled to reconsider it at 1:30 p.m. tomorrow.

KMI's attorney, Fred Lauer, said the company plans a $250,000 renovation of the movie house, built in 1942 at 108 S. Broadway. Beyond that, KMI hasn't been lavish with details about its plans for the Apex, apart from saying they want it to be upscale.

Although upscale is exactly what area residents want for that stretch of Broadway, adult entertainment in the fashion of The Block downtown is hardly what they pictured.

"We're trying to develop a family atmosphere on Broadway," says Edward Marcinko Jr., president of the Upper Fells Point Improvement Association. "This might scare off some people."

The Apex is one of a handful of surviving movie theaters in Baltimore. According to the book Exit: A History of Movies in Baltimore by Robert Headley, the 672-seat cinema opened on June 30, 1942, showing Remember Pearl Harbor.

Although in the early 1970s the Apex veered from such clean-cut fare to more risque titles, it's earned a place, albeit a seedy one, in the hearts of Baltimoreans. That's largely thanks to hometown filmmaker John Waters. The creator of Hairspray, known for affectionately depicting the city's seamy side, has often talked up the Apex.

A few years ago he told The New York Times that it was so dark inside the Apex that, "guys come in and sit on your lap by accident." He's also been quoted saying that the Apex is "a porno theater at peace in the community."

That's true, it seems.

Maureen Sweeney, executive director of Citizens for Washington Hill, will be at tomorrow's meeting, along with Upper Fells Point and Fells Point community leaders, voicing her opposition to the live entertainment concept.

The Apex, even with its porn, has been a pretty good neighbor, she says. Her association has not had a complaint about the movie house in four years.

`We'll take the movies'

Sweeney acknowledges that she would take a nice restaurant or a boutique over dirty movies, but she said she is realistic. "It's fine the way it is," she says.

"If choices are movies or live," Sweeney says, "we'll take the movies."

Although its red neon sign still flickers on every night, the tan brick theater, which sits next to a 7-Eleven convenience store and shares the block with shops that cater to the area's growing Hispanic community, seems faded. Someone has punched holes in its glass outdoor cases, which held posters for coming features back when the Apex featured films it could advertise.

Yet the hot housing market of Fells Point and Butchers Hill is closing in on the area.

The city is spending more than $3 million to beautify Broadway's medians. And developer Pat Massey is building 36 luxury townhouses just a block away. On parts of the 1700 block of Lombard St. that use to be home to a warehouse and Laundromat, she's putting in 2,000- square-foot homes that could sell for as much as $350,000 each.

"We're creating a residential environment, and we're hoping that what we do pushes the neighborhood forward," she says. The Apex, as it stands, is "contained," and live entertainment "changes the dynamic."

Restrictive zoning

David C. Tanner, executive director of the zoning board, predicts the board will deny KMI's request. The theater is in a "community business district." The city relegates all new adult entertainment venues to the central business district, which includes the stretch of Baltimore Street where The Block is located.

Venues already outside that area, such as the Ritz Cabaret south of the Apex on Broadway and Chubbies Club around the corner on Eastern Avenue, are grandfathered in. The board could decide, however, that an adult movie house is similar in nature to live adult entertainment, and give KMI its blessing, Tanner said. But probably not.

"I don't want to say it's impossible," he said. "But I suspect they're not going to do that."

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