I keep an old photograph of a thriving North Avenue taped to my desk. The largest sign projecting over the sidewalk is that of the Parkway Theatre. But for more than 30 years now, the movie theater has been closed and hasn't been doing what it should be — entertaining Baltimoreans.
The Parkway needs to flourish again, and the city, through its redevelopment arm, is offering it for sale. Opening it up and bringing it to a usable, safe standard will not be cheap, but it will be worth the investment. Developers have been asked to submit their proposals for it and the adjoining building at the corner of Charles Street and North Avenue at the end of this month.
As the Station North Arts and Entertainment District continues to attract a wider audience, I envision the Parkway as a dazzling beacon. It's time to step past the sadness at the once-productive but closed and mildewing movie theater. I knew it once as a majestic and dignified film house, a place of happy weekends. It can be so again, to new audiences.
I was reminded of this by a reader and friend, John O'Hagan, who saw a hilarious stage play, "The Man Who Came To Dinner," there. He recalled how its star, Charles Coburn, spoke briefly to the audience about his career and the gossip in Hollywood. Coburn said he had recently completed a picture with Marilyn Monroe and told stories about making the movie.
Maybe the Parkway's mysterious and brooding interior (few people have been inside since 1977) will be its chief asset. It's an unrestored antique. I visited it again the other day, and it remains a shabby knockout.
Never in my lifetime was North Avenue cosmetically pretty. It was a real city location, pounded by heavy traffic and dotted with hole-in-the-wall eateries, mixed with churches and rowhouses.
In the best sense of the description, it also had a slightly suspicious, not-quite-legitimate character. It was the kind of destination where you felt you could place an illegal bet and no questions would be asked. It had its own style, not a sedate Roland Park or a clean, shipshape Canton. A reader once called contemporary North Avenue a "grown-ups' Fells Point."
The neighborhood declined, beginning in the 1970s. Then, about a decade ago, it seemed to be discovered and rescued by artists and others.
In my first column Oct. 1, 1978, in the old News American, I described the "coma" that was then enveloping so many of the city's downtown movie houses, but I called the Parkway "Baltimore's most beautiful old movie palace." Decades later, a City Paper headline referred to it as "Cinema Purgatorio" for its agonizing closure and the frustrating failure to resolve its status.
I think of those Saturdays at the old Parkway, its wondrous, totally unexpected interior, its murals with the fading paint of the classical dancing figures. I loved its fine proportions, soaring ceilings and pre-World War I elegance. I think of the art on a piece of Wedgwood china.
John Grant, a retired National Security Agency engineer who lives nearby, on 21st Street, also is passionate about the Parkway. He feels it needs understanding, recognition and loving care. He would like to see it properly restored as a movie house or other entertainment venue. He has created a website dedicated to this dream (parkwaytheatre.com).
His eyes sparkle when he talks of the Wurlitzer pipe organ he owns, the type that once accompanied silent films here. He'd like to hear it playing at the Parkway.
I also consulted Elliott Rauh, who runs the Single Carrot Theatre. He feels the Parkway "screams music venue," a place where rock 'n' roll bands could perform. "It would be disheartening if it were turned into a retail mini-mall. I would like there to be a real music venue in central Baltimore. I know it would be utilized," he said.
As the Parkway's immediate future is being weighed this spring, I welcome the debate. I want to see its lights shine again.
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