Book chronicles long history of Baltimore movie theaters

April 29, 2006|By JACQUES KELLY

We established loyalties during the childhood Saturdays spent at the neighborhood and downtown movie houses. My own allegiances went to the Waverly, Boulevard, Parkway and Aurora, all still standing, but all out of the motion picture business. I miss them all and the sense they imparted of a neighborhood coming out for a good time.

I am indebted to author Robert K. Headley, who in his comprehensive tribute to Baltimore's theaters, Motion Picture Exhibition in Baltimore, An Illustrated History and Directory of Theaters, 1895-2004, takes us from the Alpha (Catonsville) to the York Road Cinema (Pinehurst). It's as if the No. 8 streetcar were still running.

In the opening pages, he sets the right tone: "A perfect Saturday morning was taking my allowance, catching the bus from Westport and riding downtown. First of all, making the rounds at the 10-cent stores. ... Schulte United had [toy] horses for 5 cents or 10 cents ... then on to Nedick's for a hot dog and orange juice and finally a couple of wonderful hours at the movies." Sign me up.

Headley nominates his own top-10 list: the old Ambassador on Liberty Heights, the Bridge "wide art deco" auditorium on Edmondson Avenue, the Crest (recommended for its sight lines) on Reisterstown Road, the Eastpoint 10, Edmondson Village, North Point Plaza, Perring Plaza, Senator (it's on the cover), the Stanley and its "palatial interior" and the Town, which awaits restoration and sits around the corner from the Hippodrome. (The Town's metal sculptures were by Oscar Bruno Bach, a Breslau, Germany-born metal sculptor whose arts grace Rockefeller Center and the Empire State Building.)

When I was a child, my mother took me to the Stanley on Howard Street to see Saratoga Trunk, because she knew I liked trains. The movie, except for the locomotive sequence, bored me. Then the lights came up: marble, chandeliers, curtains, plaster and murals. It was better than church and had no sermon.

Who knew that some of the first films exhibited in Baltimore flickered at Electric Park on Belvedere Avenue, or that ex-Confederate officer James Lawrence Kernan, benefactor of the Dickeyville hospital, saw the potential of movies and exploited them so early?

Movies and Baltimore are an interesting topic. Headley points out that Baltimore "was considered a hard town for live theater and Baltimore audiences were thought to be generally unresponsive to happy endings in movies."

He hits a bull's eye when he discusses our cheap-town economics. In 1949, Baltimore's neighborhood movie house admission prices were the lowest of any comparable city in the county. We were also slow to adopt the popcorn machine and free-standing candy concession counter that increased theater owners' profits.

Headley, a retired federal government linguist, brings a scholar's penchant for detail and a movie fan's obsession to the book. His exhaustive footnotes are worth the $55 cost of the book, published by McFarland, a publishing company based in Jefferson, N.C., that specializes in scholarly books.

How many times did I disappear into the faded old Parkway on North Avenue? I recall the art deco carpet at the Waverly and the Greek-inspired statues at the Boulevard.

But the 1960s and 1970s were cruel times for those of us who liked films projected in huge chambers with the architectural embellishments worthy of the Belvedere's John Eager Howard Room.

They were then being replaced by the multiplexes, which now, more than 30 years later, are coming down, too. Circuit City, for example, bought and leveled the Westview Cinemas, a film venue powerhouse in the 1970s. The theaters I once dismissed as unworthy are now suffering the same fate as the rest.

Headley quotes a 1961 column on the end of the Century theater written by critic Norman Clark in the old Baltimore American:

"Each Thursday Mary K. Gilliece, our secretary, leaves the names of the [upcoming film] attractions. ... It read, `Century -- Closed Forever.'

"Of course we knew the Century was closing tonight to make way for the builders of the Charles Center. However Mrs. Gilliece's statement of such forceful finality gave us pause.

"All this grandeur of yesteryear must fall before the bulldozers of today. But that's the way of progress. We recall the singing organist, the first in the city ... the big orchestra, the stage shows, the Hollywood stars who appeared in person ... the roof-garden atop the Century that later became the Valencia theater in 1926, with its blue sky and twinkling stars. ... After tonight's performance, the Century becomes history."

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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