Gaze north along the 500 block of Howard Street, and pause to absorb a beleaguered building you may have passed a hundred times without a second thought. Bruised and mottled by decades of weather, exhaust, and disuse—not to mention at least one fire—it may not be obvious that 508 N. Howard was for many years The Mayfair, a vibrant movie theater with vaudeville roots that seated nearly a thousand Baltimoreans. Now little more than a shell, there's nonetheless something poignant about both The Mayfair's original architectural flourish and its current decrepit state.
Linger a minute longer to take note of the parking lot just north of The Mayfair. This space that might currently accommodate a few dozen cars once held the crown jewel of Baltimore film history, The Stanley. From 1927 until its demolition in 1965, The Stanley towered over The Mayfair. At approximately 4,000 seats (roughly half again the historic capacity of The Hippodrome and four times that of The Senator), it wasn't only the largest-ever film auditorium in Baltimore, it was a movie palace boasting world premieres and its own orchestra, a theater worth mentioning alongside the most spectacular in New York or Los Angeles. These two adjacent, near-forgotten theaters—one now a skeleton, one long ago pounded into dust and swept away—serve as portals into a corner of Baltimore's cultural history that has become my obsession.
My father instilled a love of classic movies in me at an early age. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of weekend matinees at repertory theaters, gasping for air at Marx Brothers double features or hypnotized by a Bogart film noir. Growing up in Howard County, we'd trek down to The Biograph or Key in Georgetown as often as heading north to The Charles. Over time, it struck me that repertory theaters offered pleasures that went beyond those of the suburban chain multiplexes we'd hit for "Return of the Jedi" or "The Goonies," distinguishing themselves with their age, their architecture, their cinephile crowds, their centrality to city life.
This interest in historic theaters deepened upon moving to Baltimore in 1996. Two theaters I'd frequented since childhood, The Charles and The Senator, remained active; a Satyajit Ray retrospective at The Charles spanning several months served as my Baltimore welcoming committee. But in Waverly, in Hampden, in Fells Point, in what is now Station North—in each and every neighborhood I explored—there were decaying traces of a much larger theater network. And as if to underscore this point, a dreamer would occasionally come along and try to revive one of them. 25th Street's Playhouse alone had brief new lives in the 1990s as both The Heritage Playhouse, a showcase for African-American film history, and The Kobko, a first-run South Korean theater coinciding with that country's cinema renaissance.
Each abandoned theater I encountered broadened my sense of the almost-inconceivable moviegoing population that once called Baltimore home. Return to the 500 block of North Howard for a moment. Clearly, this was a happening spot in mid-20th-century Baltimore, especially when one considers its proximity to the hopping Congress Hotel and a bustling shopping district anchored by grand department stores such as Hutzler's. And yet, were we to plot a map of each movie theater in mid-20th-century Baltimore, The Mayfair and Stanley would become just two dots among approximately a hundred; what's more, this map would come alive in nearly every Baltimore neighborhood and reveal several equally robust theater districts.
Take a few more examples. Within a block of Charles Street, North Avenue boasted The Parkway and The Aurora (now Solid Rock Freewill Baptist Church), both built in the silent era, as well as the art-deco-era Centre. Greenmount Avenue held both the still-standing Boulevard at 33rd Street and, a block south, The Waverly (currently a Shoe City). A single block of Hampden's 36th Street offered The Hampden and The Ideal, in recent years repurposed as part of that neighborhood's antiques and fine-dining boom. Pennsylvania Avenue was home to the 1,350-seat Royal, a longtime centerpiece of Baltimore's African-American cultural life. Each of these theaters would be massive by today's standards, and boasted flashy marquees, elegant lobbies, and specialty programming that made experiences there distinct. In short, if you lived in Baltimore in the pre-television era, chances are you had a neighborhood theater in walking distance—and dozens more a streetcar ride away.
For decades, these theaters provided Baltimore a dramatically different level of access to film culture than we have today. For those who, like me, cherish the cinema of the 1960s and '70s, period Sun movie listings paint a particularly tantalizing picture. During the simultaneous explosions of international new waves, cult cinema, and New Hollywood, Baltimore had at least four art houses operating within a few blocks of each other: The Charles, The Playhouse, The Parkway (rebranded as the Five West), and The Aurora (then The 7 East). It wasn't unusual for a deliriously deranged film like Robert Downey Sr.'s "Putney Swope" to enjoy a multi-year run, bouncing from screen to screen (and performing particularly well at drive-ins). On any given day, one might see now-cult favorites such as "Cooley High," "Phase IV," "Enter the Dragon," "Super Fly," and "Race with the Devil" screening alongside canonized classics like "Nashville" and "Jaws" (as was the case 40 years ago today as I write this).
And yet, within a decade these dozens of active theaters would be reduced to a handful, falling prey to a gradual and multifaceted decline. Most, but not all, Baltimore theaters survived the additional investments required by sound and air conditioning; but as television boomed in the 1950s, some theaters fought back with 3-D and Cinemascope while others dropped off the map. The post-war suburban population drain took a major toll, and many theaters went dark or lived out their final days serving up X-rated fare by the late '70s. Others crawled into the 1980s by "twinning," carving up their original auditoriums to compete with multiplexes, VCRs, and cable television—a strategy that ironically made them unviable by the mid-'90s, when chains returned to large screens as a strategy to excite audiences.
Nonetheless, the march of time has left a few silver linings. Thanks to the passion of historians and enthusiasts, the memory of Baltimore's movie theaters has never been better documented, nor easier to access. The bible on this subject, Robert K. Headley's "Motion Picture Exhibition in Baltimore," offers astonishing detail on the architecture, history, and fate of each theater discussed here and dozens more. One can further delight in beautiful images online via sites such as the Maryland Historical Society's Tumblr, Cinema Treasures, Flickering Treasures on Facebook, and Kilduff's Baltimore.
More tangibly, the slow pace of change in our city may have insulated some of these historic theaters from irreversible fates. Whereas many D.C. theaters, including my old haunts The Biograph and The Key, were gobbled up for retail purposes during the 1990s, Baltimore has seen several of its neighborhood theaters return to cultural use over recent decades, with more on the horizon. Both The Charles and The Senator have expanded; The Patterson has found a new life as the Creative Alliance; and Everyman Theatre now occupies the former Town, to name just a few. The Centre re-opened this year as a mixed-use space that includes Johns Hopkins University and MICA film classes; and The Parkway is slated to re-open in 2017 as the year-round home of the Maryland Film Festival (for which I am the director of programming) with the original auditorium restored and two additional screens added.
It's hard to imagine any such fate for The Mayfair, one of many movie theaters to close for good in the 1980s—and that The Stanley ever existed seems an impossible dream. But each theater returned to a cultural purpose strikes me as an underdog win for city life: for neighborhoods, for arts and entertainment districts, for walkability, for the local economy, and so much more. Against the odds, in this era of Netflix and torrents, the number of movie screens in and around Baltimore is on the rise again. It gives one hope that each time the world produces a new "Putney Swope" or "Cooley High," a crowd will be seated somewhere in this city under dimming lights, ready to share a transporting experience with a hundred other Baltimoreans. •