The Show Went On - For Many Wonderful Years - At Howard And Franklin

November 10, 2007|By JACQUES KELLY

My grandmother called it the Auditorium and I knew it as the Mayfair, that venerable Howard Street theater where Lawrence of Arabia and Mary Poppins had local debuts. Closed since 1986, the Mayfair made the news this week: Developers are now ready to make it into apartments.

Well, over the years, it's been other things too - in the 1880s a gym called the Natorium, then an Ice Palace (artificial ice), Turkish baths and, after 1905, a fabulous theater that enjoyed a very long run.

During an afternoon spent at the central library of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, I leafed through programs detailing just who played the Auditorium, live, in person, on the stage.

Just months before he made The Jazz Singer, the groundbreaking Warner Brothers talking film, Al Jolson sat on the Auditorium stage apron in the musical Big Boy. Not long before, comedian W.C. Fields was on the same stage.

The New York powerhouse Shuberts booked the Auditorium/Mayfair for a while in the 1920s and sent their operettas through. So Baltimoreans got to see The Desert Song, My Maryland, Countess Maritza and Rose Marie. Some of these shows were remade as movies. (Warner Brothers reused the set of The Desert Song for Casablanca - which, incidentally, played next door at the late, lamented Stanley.)

Baltimore's critics heavily applauded two musicals at the old Auditorium. In 1924, two young British women, Bea Lillie and Gertrude Lawrence, played Baltimore for a week in Charlot's Revue. In late 1931, Rhapsody in Black occasioned "whistling and foot thumping ... from the far reaches of the second balcony invaded the orchestra floor." Its stars were the amazing jazz artists Ethel Waters and Valaida.

You would never guess that Baltimore's version of a theatrical Times Square was the corner of Howard and Franklin streets. At one point in the 1920s, you could find master magician Harry Houdini at the old Academy of Music. Around the corner, on Franklin Street, Noel Coward appeared in This Year of Grace.

Who knew? Theater legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne appeared at the Auditorium in The Doctor's Dilemma. Peggy Wood (who was in the 1950s television show I Remember Mama) appeared in Candida with Elizabeth Patterson, known to I Love Lucy fans as the older woman who lived upstairs and was Little Ricky's baby sitter.

At times, movies played the Auditorium. In the early days of film, Biography and Vitagraph two-reelers were shown as a novelty invention. The house was wired for sound in 1929, and versions of All Quiet on the Western Front and Hells Angels arrived.

The then-aging Auditorium did a masterful job of reinventing itself when it was spruced up in an art moderne makeover as the Mayfair in 1941. It enjoyed almost another half-century as a downtown movie house.

My last trip there was to see Ragtime, the 1981 film with Howard Rollins Jr. The Mayfair was clearly changing with times. Normally, you might smell popcorn in a theater lobby. Not on Howard Street and not in Baltimore: A thick haze of marijuana hung over the orchestra that night.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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