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Architecture

Lost City: Baltimore’s Grand Theatres

Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw Street, 1918, PP8-387, MdHS (reference photo).

The Hippodrome Theatre, one of Baltimore’s lost now revitalized theatres in 1918.
Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw Street, 1918, detail of PP8-387, MdHS (reference photo).

What happened to the movie business in Baltimore? Between 1900 and 1970 about 235 movie theatres in Baltimore opened and closed. The technological advances that created this once popular form of entertainment also contributed to its demise, as television and later the internet allowed viewers to stay at home to watch a wide variety of program choices. Urban renewal not only took some of the land on which many movie theatres were located, but changed entire neighborhoods along with their demographics.(1)

The task of accounting for the loss of all of the motion picture theatres in Baltimore is a daunting one since records of openings and closings are scant, but the extent and flavor of a handful of the more prominent winners and losers – and the first hand knowledge of this writer who lived through the Golden Age of the movies in Baltimore – can hopefully shed some light on this history.

The utilitarian nature of today’s movie theatre, and the rise of the multiplex, is in sharp contrast to the grandeur of yesterday’s cinema “palace.” Many of today’s movies contain extreme violence, possibly reflecting the turmoil of the world we live in, unlike those romantic affairs of the period between two debilitating world wars.

Between 1929 and 1939, while the country suffered through a devastating depression, motion pictures presented an inexpensive way to forget one’s troubles. You could go to the movies, relax for a few hours and watch smartly dressed movie stars relaxing with a cigarette and a cocktail in a lavishly appointed apartments high above Park Avenue; a life style most viewers would probably never achieve. All of this for a ticket price between 20 and 25 cents.

During the 1930s, weekly movie attendance was about 80 million or 65 percent of the country’s population. This was the Golden Age of Motion Pictures. Compared to 27.3 million (9.7 percent) in the year 2000 this sharp decline in theatre attendance speaks for itself.(2)

Century Theatre, 18 West Lexington Street, ca 1925, 1995.62.001, MdHS.

Century Theatre, 18 West Lexington Street, ca 1925, 1995.62.001, MdHS.

Harvey Hammond, retrobaltimore.tumbler (not MdHS)

Harvey Hammond, organist at the Century Theatre from the 1930s to the 1950s. (3)

When the economy improved in the 1940s, families sought out the movies as a Saturday night treat. Dad wore a suit, mom put on a nice dress, the kids put on their school clothes, an early dinner at home was enjoyed and the family headed to movie palaces like the Loew’s Century Theatre on Lexington Street for a show. If they got there before Huyler’s Candy and Restaurant next door closed, the kids might be treated to a bag of non-pareils. The Century was built in May 1921, with a rooftop ballroom that opened that October. Five years later the ballroom was converted to another theatre, the Valencia.

Once seated at the Century, the house lights dimmed, a spot light shown down in front of the stage and smiling Harvey Hammond rose from below on a pedestal, playing the organ. Simultaneously, the lyrics for the song he was playing appeared on the movie screen behind him, with a bouncing ball skipping from word to word keeping time with the music. Songs over, Harvey and his Wurlitzer slowly descended and disappeared. The screen lit up and Movietone News appeared with the news of the day after which a sonorous voice announced a short subject film, “The March of Time.”

Only then did the the main attraction start, which might be The Thin Man, featuring William Powell as Nick Charles, a well-to-do detective along with his lovely wife Nora played by Myrna Loy, usually dressed in formal wear going to or coming from some fancy event. That was the movie business at that time.

Loew's Valencia Theatre, ca. 1926.

Loew’s Valencia Theater staff, ca 1926, SVF, MdHS.

Auditorium Theatre, 516 North Howard Street, Ca. 1925, 1994.42.042, MdHS.

Auditorium Theatre, 516 North Howard Street, Ca. 1925, 1994.42.042, MdHS.

Both the Century and Valencia became victims of urban renewal, with both theatres closing in January 1961. The following summer they were demolished to make way for Charles Center, an office complex. Urban renewal and the decline of Baltimore’s “Downtown” district  also took the lives of the many theatres along North Howard Street: The Mayfair (formerly the Auditorium and Kernan’s), closed in 1965; The Stanley, demolished in 1965; The Little, closed in 1989; The Howard, taken down in 1980; Keith’s Theatre, also gone by 1980.

Street scene. The Palace Theatre (311-317 West Fayette Street), ca. 1920-1930. 1995-62-005, MdHS.

Street scene. The Palace Theatre (311-317 West Fayette Street), ca. 1920-1930. 1995-62-005, MdHS.

Many of the prominent theatres in Baltimore, mostly downtown, gave the impression of entering a palace, with elaborate gilded plaster ceilings, marble or gold encrusted pillars on each side of the stage and fancy velvet curtains covering the screen. One of the lost-and-now found theatres was actually named the Palace. Built in 1911 at 315 West Fayette Street, the Palace Theatre was located just around the corner from the Hippodrome, one of the few venues remaining today.

The Palace was built in 1911 in the Beaux-Arts style, and was initially called the Empire Theatre. It had a long and varied history, starting life as a burlesque (advertised as “Better Burlesque”) and vaudeville, then transitioning to an unsuccessful movie house, before reverting back to burlesque and finally closing in 1937. After this 2,200-seat theatre shut down, it was gutted and converted to a garage. Ten years later, it was re-opened as the Town Theatre, designed in the Art Moderne style by architect John Zink, the designer of 17 theatres in the Maryland, D.C., Virginia area, including the still existing Senator in Baltimore.

Everyman Theatre,

Everyman Theatre, 311-317 W. Fayette Street.(4)

The Town opened with the movie It’s a Wonderful Life–Jimmy Stewart and director Frank Capra attended the opening. In 1953, the Town featured Cinerama, Hollywood’s development of a new technique that they hoped would attract more audiences. Cinerama involved showing the same image projected from three synchronized 35-mm cameras onto a wide curved screen. This new way to view movies did not catch on and the Town began showing second rate and B-movies before finally closing in 1990.

At the beginning of 2000, Baltimore designated the West Side of downtown as the Bromo Arts and Entertainment District. In 2010, the Everyman Theatre company bought the Town for one dollar and began a major fundraising effort to completely remodel the building. Opening in 2012 as the Everyman Theatre, it brings new life to the area and completes, full circle, the artistic connection to this landmark structure.

Parkway Theatre, 5 W. North Avenue, ca 1926. (5)

Parkway Theatre, 5 W. North Avenue, ca 1926. (5)

Located at 5 West North Avenue, the Parkway Theatre represents one of those theatres impacted by the changing demographics and the changing nature of North Avenue. In the 1920s and 30s, some automobile dealers relocated to North Avenue from Mt. Royal Avenue as populations started a shift northward. The North Avenue Market opened in 1928 between Charles Street and Maryland Avenue, advertised as a model modern market and considered a prototype of the suburban shopping center, featuring retail stores, markets, and a bowling alley. More than 50,000 visitors attended its opening day. After WWII the market began to decline and in August 1968 a fire destroyed a major portion of the building. By that time only 30 stalls were in business. The unaffected part of the market was turned into a supermarket in 1974; the destroyed portion was razed to accommodate a high rise retirement home. Efforts to rejuvenate the site began in 2008 and are expected to continue through 2016.

Parkway Theatre, 5 W. North Avenue, ca 1926. (6)

Parkway Theatre, 5 W. North Avenue, ca 2009.(6)

The Parkway was built in 1915 in the Italian Renaissance style by architect John Eberson; it was redecorated in 1926 and remained open until 1977 when it closed due to declining attendance and urban decline. But unlike other theatres that fell to the demolition ball, the Parkway is rising again, at its present location in what is now the Station North Arts and Entertainment District.

Design of the “new” Parkway began in 2012 in what will be known as the SNF Parkway Film Center, a venue for the Maryland Film Festival, and will become a center for the study and production of films, as well as a place for students of film-making at both Johns Hopkins University and MICA. to have hands on experience. The theatre will be renamed the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Film Center in honor of the $5 million contribution from that foundation.

In addition to the downtown theatres, many neighborhoods had one or sometimes two movie theatres. These neighborhood theatres generally did not replicate the grandeur of their downtown relatives. In southwest Baltimore, the Columbia Theatre at 709 Washington Boulevard opened in 1920 and closed 40 years later due to urban renewal. They played all the popular movies of the time. The nearby Eureka Theatre on 404 South Fremont Avenue showed westerns and second-run films. The Eureka had a loyal following because they didn’t have a newsreel or other short subject films, rather, they showed “serials,” like Flash Gordon, whose hero got into dangerous predicaments each week, every one ending in a cliffhanger–you’d have to wait until next week to see how Flash got out of it.

One movie house that rivaled the opulence of those downtown was the Forest Theatre on Garrison Boulevard near Liberty Heights Avenue in an area known as Forest Park. It opened on December 22, 1919 amidst a group of neighborhood type stores like Reads Drug Store, Arundel Ice Cream Parlor, a hand laundry, a delicatessen, and a shoe repair shop. The street car running on Liberty Heights Avenue was a convenient way to get there, if one chose not to walk a mile or two.

Like most neighborhood movie houses, they got the first runs after theatre closings downtown, and had much lower admission prices. Although the Forest had an intricate brick façade designed by architect Edward H. Glidden, the interior was utilitarian. Also like most small neighborhood theatres, they had one or two candy vending machines in the lobby. For five cents one could get a roll of Necco wafers, a box of Masons Black Crows, JuJubes or JuJy Fruits or maybe a Baby Ruth bar. The Forest ceased operation in May 1961. It was converted into a church and is now the Muhammad Mosque Number Six.

BGE 8990 Ambassador Theatre, Baltimore, Maryland.

Ambassador Theatre, 1935.
BGE Collections, BGE 8990, Baltimore Museum of Industry.

The Ambassador was another neighborhood theatre further out Liberty Heights Avenue in the Gwynn Oak or Howard Park section of Baltimore. This Art Deco movie theatre, designed by John J. Zink, opened in 1935 after a bitter fight with the owners of the Gwynn Theatre directly across the street. It was one of the first neighborhood theatres that began to show first-run movies.

The Ambassador remained in operation until 1968. It was bought by the owners of Park Terrace Caterers and spent several years as a dance hall and as a catering business. It later became a skating rink, a cosmetology school, and then a church in 2001. The property was put up for auction in 2009 but had no acceptable bids and was withdrawn. In 2012 a small fire occurred and efforts have been made by a new owner to find a use for the building that will fit into the surrounding area.

The Grand Theatre, built in 1911 at 511 South Conkling Street had a triangular marquee emanating from a green colored front that rose high above its neighbors. Unusual for its time, the box office, made of stainless steel, was nestled under the marquee. The theatre was remodeled in 1926 and remained in operation until 1985. The building was demolished in December 2003 and the Enoch Pratt Library built its Southeast Anchor Branch there, which opened on May 14, 2007. Although the branch’s address is listed as 3601 Eastern Avenue, this multi-storied structure wraps around 517 Conkling Street. This is the HighlandTown neighborhood, the birthplace of musician/composer Frank Zappa and September 13 is celebrated here as Frank Zappa Day—his bust is outside the Conkling Street entrance to the library.

Royal Theatre, Pennsylvania Avenue, 1949, Paul Henderson, HEN.00.B1-001, MdHS.

Royal Theatre, Pennsylvania Avenue, 1949, Paul Henderson, HEN.00.B1-001, MdHS.

The Royal Theatre, located at 1329 Pennsylvania Avenue opened in 1921 as the African-American owned Douglass Theatre. It was renamed The Royal five years later and was one of five black-entertainment theatres in a circuit that included the Apollo in Harlem, the Howard in Washington, D.C, the Regal in Chicago, and the Earl in Philadelphia. All of the biggest black entertainers of the time, and future giants in the industry, traveled this circuit. The Royal’s movie menu was much overshadowed by its live entertainment in this lively neighborhood known at the time simply as “The Avenue.” Baltimore’s first “talking” movie was shown at the Royal.

The list of entertainers included Pearl Bailey and Ethel Waters who sang in the chorus line, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Louie Armstrong, and later Nat King Cole, James Brown, the Platters, the Supremes, The Temptations, Count Basie with his 40 piece all-girl orchestra named  the Sweethearts of Rhythm–all played at the Royal. The Royal audience declined in the 1960s and ’70s and in 1971, the Royal was demolished. Today, the Royal Theater Marquis Monument and a statue of Billie Holliday reside where the theatre once stood on Pennsylvania Avenue and LaFayette Street.

Built in 1902 in the Romanesque style with a granite edifice, The Harlem Park Theatre on Gilmore Street began life as The Methodist Episcopal Church. Two devastating fires caused the church to abandon the building; one in December 1908 and a more severe one in 1924. During this period in Baltimore’s history the neighborhood was shifting from white to African-American, and since the church was a predominately white church, that furthered the decision to leave the area.

In 1928 the property was sold to the Fidelity Amusement Corporation and was turned into a 1,500-seat theatre catering to African-American theatre goers. The theatre was designed in the Spanish style by Theodore Wells Pietsch who also designed Eastern High School and the Broadway pier in Baltimore. The fireproof structure made of steel and brick opened in October 1932 with a blazing marquee of 1,000 lights. By the late 1960s the theatre’s audience began to decline and it closed in 1975. Going full circle, on July 6, 1975, the Harlem Park Community Baptist Church was created there thanks to the efforts of Reverend Raymond Kelley Jr.

SVF - Baltimore - Theatres - Hippodrome Theatre. 12 North Eutaw

Hippodrome Theatre, 12 Eutaw Street, 1921, SVF, MdHS.

The Hippodrome Theatre built in 1914 at 12 N. Eutaw Street is the only theatre standing in its original glory with several updates and major renovations. The “Hip” as it was called featured first-run Loew’s movies and spectacular live stage shows during the 1930s featuring performers such as Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Martha Raye, the Andrew Sisters, the Three Stooges, Mandrake the Magician, and Frank Sinatra. Live stage shows ended in 1959, but movies were shown until the Hip closed in 1990—the last movie house downtown.

Re-opening in 2004 with stunning interiors as the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, but still referred to as the Hippodrome by theatre goers, it has become the Crown Jewel in Baltimore’s new Bromo Tower Arts & Entertainment District.

No discussion of movie theatres in Baltimore would be complete without mentioning The Charles Theatre at 1711 N.Charles Street and the Senator Theatre on York Road, both owned and operated by Buzz Cusack, and his daughter Kathleen Cusack Lyon.

The Times Theatre, today the Charles, circa 1955.

The Times Theatre, today the Charles, circa 1955.
Charles Street-Times Theatre, 1700 block, SVF, MdHS.

The Charles, referred to as the oldest theatre in Baltimore, started life as a streetcar barn in 1892, a time when trolleys ran down Charles Street and through the downtown area. Known by the long winded name “Baltimore City Passenger Railway Power House and Car Barn,” it remained in operation until 1939. A tenant in the building upon re-opening in late 1939 was the Times Theatre which was initially devoted solely to showing newsreels; at the north end of the building a bowling alley opened.

A second floor was built above the bowling alley in the’40s and became the Famous Ballroom, host to Dizzy Gillespie, drummer Buddy Rich, and the Left Bank Jazz Society that held events there.

Re-named the Charles Theatre in 1958, it became an art house in the ’70s, and in 2016, it is one of Baltimore’s iconic theatres, along with the Senator Theatre which opened at 5904 York Road on October 5,1939.

Senator Theatre, 5904 York Road, ca 1953.
Hughes Company Collection, PP30-105-106A-54-1, MdHS.

The Art Deco design of the Senator by architect John Zink featured an exterior of glass block and limestone. The first movie shown when it opened, was Stanley and Livingston, starring Spencer Tracy and Nancy Kelly. The theatre stopped showing first-run movies in 2009 and after making some renovations, re-opened in October 2010, only to close again to create a miniplex with three smaller screening rooms next to the main theatre when it re-opened on April 26,2012. The Senator was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.

The Senator is famous for a number of things including its “walk of fame,” highlighting various accomplishments cast in the concrete pavement at the main entrance. In 2003 it became the first theatre to complete the Historic Cinema Certification Program offered by a California company founded by George Lucas. And it is now just what a neighborhood theatre ought to be. (Sidney Levy)

Sidney Levy is a volunteer in the Maryland Historical Society’s Special Collection Department.

Sources and further reading:

(1) Kilduff’s Index of Maryland Movie Theatres.

(2) Pauz, Michael, The Decline in Average Weekly Cinema Attendance: 1930-2000, Issues in Political Economy, Vol. 11, 2002.

(3) Image from Retro Baltimore from the Baltimore Sun

(4) Image from www.cbhassociates.com

(5) Image from cinematreasures.org

(6) Image from cinematreasures.org

Headley, Robert. Motion Picture Exhibition in Baltimore. (McFarland & Company, 2006.)

Discussion

10 Responses to “Lost City: Baltimore’s Grand Theatres”

  1. Hello,

    Interesting article. I am looking forward Sidney Levy who went to McKinley High school in D.C. around 1932. I have a high school text book with said name written in it. Looking to return, other names are John Morgan, Anthony Holmes etc. Would appreciate reply.

    Posted by Deborah cahn | 18. Apr, 2016, 5:20 pm
  2. Bravo to Sidney for this wonderful look at Baltimore’s old theaters. I’d like to get in touch with Sidney, and share more information about my upcoming photo book, which explores this subject in even greater detail. For anyone who enjoyed this article, please visit the Facebook page for my book, “Flickering Treasures: Rediscovering Baltimore’s Forgotten Movie Theaters. (www.facebook.com/flickeringtreasures. You don’t have to be a FB member to view this public page.) Please “like” this FB page, if so inclined, to receive updates on the book’s launch. I have posted Sidney’s article and also credited MdHS for the beautiful photos from your archive which will be included in the book.
    Cheers, Amy Davis

    Posted by Amy Davis | 18. Apr, 2016, 5:22 pm
  3. While this is focused on city movie houses I’d like to mention the Colony in Parkville. This also had the ticket booth underneath the arcade as well as a candy and soad counter and popcorn maker instead of just vending machines. I saw both The Ten Commandments (not first run of course) and The Godfather (probably after closing at larger cinemas) at the Colony. I believe it’s now a VFW. If I remember correctly it also was in an exterior shot of Hairspray.

    I also had the “pleasure” of seeing a film at The Hippodrome not long before it closed. In spite of the manager searching the aisles for a rat the tarnished grandeur of this palace was still evident. Glad it was resurrected. I am glad that a major live performance theater remains in the immediate downtown, especially with The Mechanic sadly razed.

    In spite of its Brutalist style The Mechanic nevertheless kept a slight heartbeat in the center of Baltimore. The Mechanic was the first theater where I saw a Broadway level production. Perhaps there is a Divine Justice to razing the Mechanic given that it’s builder razed the competition. Such is the life of a theater building?

    Thanks for a terrific article about Baltimore’s grand movie houses.

    Posted by DLN | 18. Apr, 2016, 10:56 pm
  4. To help date the photo of the Ambassador Theatre, I noticed that Dr Socrates was on the marquee. Dr Socrates was a 1935 film starring Paul Muni. So the photo was apparently taken in 1935, the year it opened.

    Posted by Tom Stansbury | 22. Apr, 2016, 8:13 pm
  5. The grand was ma moovie…man oh man

    Posted by mike palmere | 29. Sep, 2016, 1:26 pm
  6. The grand on Conklin st loved the place…..many a times spent there

    Posted by mike palmere | 29. Sep, 2016, 1:27 pm

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