A rundown of city's other theaters during segregation

May 06, 2006|By JACQUES KELLY

I received a e-mail from an old friend, McNair Taylor, a retired city elementary teacher and Northwest Baltimore resident. He wanted to know why I hadn't included black-patronized film houses in last week's column. My short answer was segregation. In the heyday of my movie-going, the city's places of public accommodation were not open to all.

In 1960 Baltimore, I mainly patronized neighborhood movie houses in Waverly and along North Avenue. Integration was coming, but it hadn't yet arrived. In last week's column, I listed some of these, the movie houses (all closed now) I visited, as well as the list of author Robert K. Headley, who has a book out that details all of Baltimore's movie venues, including those that served African-American audiences.

But there is nothing like the personal touch, and I asked Mr. Taylor, who was raised on Dolphin Street and whose father and mother were Pennsylvania Avenue barbers, to give me his rundown on the top film houses of another era.

His extended written comments follow:

"1. The Royal, 1300 block Pennsylvania Avenue. Could there be any other Number 1? I've never been able to verify this story, but I heard that the Royal was once known as the Douglass, a theater dedicated to the arts, financed by a group of citizens of color. The intent was to bring classical plays and music to our community. When that effort failed, it was sold and the new owner turned to the popular music of the day.

"2. The Regent. 1600 block Pennsylvania Avenue. The Regent was the class of the movies, a well-kept house, where no noise was tolerated and you took your best girl on a Sunday and watched mainly movies from 20th-Century Fox.

"3. The Harlem, 600 block N. Gilmor Street. The only class movie house not on The Avenue, the home of MGM.

"4. (tie) The Carver Playhouse, 1400 block Pennsylvania Avenue, and The Met, North and Pennsylvania Avenue.

"The Carver was an attempt to bring a touch of uptown to downtown. The admission price, which was higher than the others, featured a lobby that gave free smokes and coffee and/or tea, served by a hostess. The movies were mainly from independent studios. The Carver, formerly, The Diane, a neighborhood movie house, lasted as long as an ice cream cone in August, and, sadly, went back to being The Diane, even though the name remained.

"The Met was a latecomer, being a white-only theater, that, because of the surrounding neighborhood, faced reality and opened to us. As I remember, United Artists and other independents came there.

"Also, first-run in our neighborhood was really second-run as the movies always debuted downtown first, and came to us three to four weeks later.

"The neighborhood movie houses, the home to B-movies and serials, were plentiful:

"The New Albert, the Roosevelt, the Lincoln and the Lennox were all on The Avenue or nearby.

"Baltimore was separated geographically as well as racially, Charles Street being our version of the Korean 38th Parallel. Many traveled from the Eastside, particularly to Pennsylvania Avenue, but as far as neighborhood movie houses, no!

"I contacted one of my buddies, an Eastsider, who told me about The Dunbar, Radio, Park, Rio, Biddle, Apollo, among others. Yes. We were locked in, in many ways."

Thank you, Mr. Taylor. The only theater you mentioned I got in was the old Met, where my mother often told the story of seeing Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer. It was Baltimore's first talkie house. In the late 1970s, it was demolished.

A few days before the wrecker arrived, I got permission to go inside its locked doors, write a story and get photos for the Sunday paper. It was a freezing January day, and the electricity had been turned off.

The photographer set off a flash within the Met's cavernous, mysterious interior, decorated with 1920s plaster griffins, a mythical monster that combined the body and legs of a lion with the wings and claws of an eagle.

The flash worked, but it antagonized the bats that had nested inside this dank and dark playhouse. I raced up the aisle and out the door, safe in the light at Pennsylvania and North.


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