Noise An Arts Blog

Harry Belafonte handprints outside Parkway could not be saved, construction company says

As the people behind the renovation of the Parkway Theatre, the new home of the Maryland Film Festival, have made clear, their intent was to leave certain features in the old movie house as they look after years of decay, mixing the old with the new and restoring only what they had to.

But one thing lost to time was a cast set of handprints by screen legend Harry Belafonte. The prints from the actor and civil rights activist were located on a six-sided piece of concrete at the base of the tiled step outside the theater's old entrance.

Now, there is a set of new steps and a handicap-accessible ramp.

In a statement, Dominick Dunnigan, a representative of the construction company that worked on the revamping the theater, Southway Builders, said the thinness of the casting, placed over the concrete of the sidewalk, made it hard to save.

He wrote: "When the casting was done in 1998, it was created by applying a very thin (less than one inch) veneer over the existing sidewalk. Over time, the casting developed a multitude of spider web like cracks. Multiple attempts were made to remove the casting veneer, however, without success.

"Additional attempts to remove the veneer in large enough pieces to reassemble were unsuccessful. The veneer casting came up in small fragmented sizes as a result of the spiderweb-like cracks. These pieces would be too small to piece back together.

"Attempts to remove the veneer casting in conjunction with the existing section of concrete slab under the veneer was also unsuccessful. Moving the sub-slab caused the veneer casting to delaminate and break into even smaller pieces."

Jed Dietz, founding director of the Maryland Film Festival, said in a statement: "The Maryland Film Festival is saddened that multiple efforts to save this significant piece of history didn't succeed. We are obviously a huge fan of everything Belafonte has done for the art of film. We were deeply honored to have Belafonte at the 2011 Festival to host the closing night screening of 'Sing Your Song.'"

As Dunniga noted, Belafonte's hands were cast in 1998, when he accepted a lifetime achievement award from Heritage Shadows of a Silver Screen, a theater and museum dedicated to African-American filmmaking that was founded by Michael Johnson.

Johnson had hoped to raise funds to renovate the Parkway and make it the home to Heritage Shadows, but his efforts were unsuccessful. 

In 2000, after several attempts, Johnson found a home for his project in the former nightclub Odell's, outside of which you can still find concrete slabs dedicated to African-American stars. 

Three years later, Johnson moved to Towson, citing complaints about parking, location, and the lack of new, commercial films. A phone number listed online for the Heritage Cinema Plex, as it came to be known, is no longer in service.

Concerns over Belafonte's missing prints were first raised by Kevin Brown, owner of Station North Arts Cafe and Nancy by SNAC and board member of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, on social media. In City Paper's cover story last week, Brown criticized the film festival over how it treated neighboring businesses during construction and in the lead-up to the festival. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But he did post on his Facebook page that he has long been an appreciator of and collaborator with the festival, calling Dietz "a friend and a gentleman."

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