Burlesque to bullets, Town has colorful past

November 15, 2006|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun theater critic

The Town Theatre, the former west-side vaudeville house that will be Everyman Theatre's new home, closed in 1990 - coincidentally, the year Everyman was founded. But the Town had a long, colorful history before that.

Originally called the Empire, the theater was designed by Otto Simonson of Baltimore and W.H. McElfatrick of New York. It opened on Christmas Day in 1911, with seating for more than 2,200 on several levels, as well as pool parlors, a soda fountain and a rathskeller, as Robert Kirk Headley Jr. recounted in his 1974 book, Exit: A History of Movies in Baltimore.

Two years later the Empire was renamed the Palace and offered a three-a-day bill of movies and vaudeville. Headliners included Mae West and Joe E. Brown. By the late 1920s, however, the theater was being rented for events such as boxing and bingo.

On Christmas Eve 1933, the Palace reopened as a cinema. But within a year it was presenting Minsky's burlesque, which led to more than one police raid.

In 1937, the Palace was converted into a parking garage. A decade later, it was refashioned into a movie theater.

On Jan. 22, 1947, It's a Wonderful Life opened the newly named, 1,550-seat Town Theatre. The gala event was attended by the movie's star, James Stewart, and its director, Frank Capra. Tallulah Bankhead showed up at the party afterward. Eventually, the Town was "twinned," with one movie theater on the ground floor and another upstairs.

The greatest drama in the Town's history occurred Sept. 25, 1953, when John Elgin Johnson, who was on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list, made a call to Los Angeles from a phone booth on the mezzanine. The FBI, which was monitoring his contact in Los Angeles, traced the call and arrived within minutes. An exchange of gunfire left Johnson and an FBI agent dead. Movie patrons downstairs never noticed. They were watching Mickey Spillaine's I, the Jury and presumably mistook real gunshots for the gunshots on the screen.

j.wynn.rousuck@baltsun.com

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