Roland Park resident leads effort to reopen Parkway Theatre in Station North

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Maryland Film Festival founding director Jed Dietz has raised most of the $18.2 million he needs to restore

The movies Jed Dietz loved growing up in Syracuse, N.Y., were such epics as "Around the World in 80 Days," Lawrence of Arabia" and ""Cleopatra."

Dietz saw them on a large, curved screen at Saturday matinees at cinema houses such as the historic, 1928 Landmark Theatre in Syracuse, originally called Loew's State Theatre, which is now a performing arts center. He and his friends would go to double features and buy candy that they knew would last the longest.

Today, at 67, the longtime Roland Park resident has more emotional distance to judge such classics as "Lawrence."

"That one certainly has held up," he said. "Maybe 'Cleopatra' not so much."

But that 1963 flick is well-remembered for its stars, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and had plenty of action to keep a teenager entertained.

"It was impressive," Dietz said.

As an adult, Dietz, the founding director of the Maryland Film Festival, has long been impressed with one of Baltimore's most storied former theaters, the Parkway at 5 W. North Ave., in the city's Station North arts and entertainment district. He is leading an $18.2 million effort to restore and expand the vacant, deteriorating theater, which turns 100 this week, and three adjacent buildings as a three-screen, 600-seat multiplex to be called the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway Film Center. The Parkway's auditorium will be 420-seat main theater, and the other two screening rooms each will have 100 seats.

Dietz promises state of the art projection and sound, including 3-D in the main room. He hopes to attract a diverse audience of as many as 60,000 moviegoers a year, according to a fact sheet about the project.

Construction is expected to start in November, with a focus on historical accuracy; the theater's target date to reopen is March 2017.

Dietz envisions the Parkway as a home for the annual film festival, which for too long has been nomadic, using the Charles Theatre and other venues around town, he said. The Parkway also would be a year-round venue for first-run, lower-budget movies, which otherwise might not be able to compete for screen time with blockbusters. The three-story, 29,000-square-foot building also is expected to serve as classroom space for film students from Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Institute College of Art.

"The goal is to bring smaller independent and foreign films to Baltimore," said Dietz, who was dapper in a black sports jacket, open shirt, blue jeans and black shoes as he led the Baltimore Messenger last week on a tour of the Parkway in all of its faded grandeur.

Nuts and bolts

For now, the project has less to do with movies than the nuts and bolts of construction, making the building energy-efficient, compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, and free of lead and asbestos.

"All that's been studied," Dietz said.

"It's not asbestos-free, but considering its age, it's not as toxic as one would have imagined," said Parkway fundraising campaign manager Anna Danz.

Despite peeling plaster, exposed wiring and propensity for basement flooding, the Parkway, with its marble steps, original tile floors and domed ceiling, still feels like an old theater, albeit one so vacant and dark that Dietz picked his way through the balcony and told his visitors to watch their step.

"Given the vulnerability of the building (since it closed), it's incredible how good the bones are," Dietz said.

Dietz and Danz said the building is in a lot better shape than the newly restored former Centre Theatre a block away, which is now home to community nonprofits, film students and the Baltimore Jewelry Center, but is not a theater. That building, which was once a Studebaker dealership, had trees growing in it before it was redeveloped, Danz said.

"It was a wreck," she said.

Now, it's an inspiration for the Maryland Film Festival, which paid the city a token $1 last summer to buy and operate the Parkway as a nonprofit, and has raised more than $15 million so far, including a $2 million state grant, $2 million in historic tax credits, along with funding from foundations and private donors, including $4.8 million from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, which makes grants in the areas of arts and culture, education, health and sports,and social welfare, according to its website..

The architect for the project is Ziger/Snead Architects, while Remington-based Seawall Development Corp. is serving as a development consultant.

Built in 1915 by Henry Webb's Northern Amusement Co., at a cost of $120,000, the Parkway was modeled after the West End Theatre in London and the Strand in New York. It was designed in the Italian Renaissance and Beaux Arts architectural styles, and first showed silent films, eschewing the opportunity to be a vaudeville venue as well, Dietz said. The first film shown there was "Zaza," starring Pauline Frederick. Loew's bought it in the 1920s.

By 1930, 65 percent of Americans were seeing a movie a week, Dietz said.

Morris Mechanic owned the Parkway for a time in the 1950s. It became 5 West Art Theatre in the 60s and was an art house cinema for foreign films when it closed in 1978.

Dietz said the theater was "a big part of the neighborhood" until the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the ensuing riots in Baltimore in 1968, after which North Avenue and the area now called Station North fell on hard times.

"This corridor really got devastated," Dietz said.

Home for the festival

In the 1980s, artists began to "squat" in the Parkway. Meanwhile, Dietz, whose wife, Julia McMillan, is a pediatrician at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center, got out of the auto parts business and moved to Baltimore in 1990, with the film bug still biting. Raising venture capital to go into the film business, he helped the state lure more filmmakers to Maryland, and in 1999 founded the Maryland Film Festival. But the festival has had no home of its own, which is why Dietz was so intrigued by the Parkway.

"We were shoehorning ourselves into other people's theaters," he said, and last year was showing festival films in seven venues, including the Baltimore Museum of Art, Walters Art Gallery, the Maryland Institute College of Art, the Windup Space in Station North, and Single Carrot Theatre in Remington, with a bus taking filmgoers around..

When Dietz got his first look inside the Parkway in 2011, it had formerly housed a Korean grocery store.

Now, he is on the verge of starting construction on a project that he said will expand film offerings in the area and won't face much competition, because the Parkway is smaller than the Charles Theatre and is aiming to show smaller films than the Charles.

"There's nobody programming the kinds of movies we are," he said, adding that he thinks the new venue will pay for itself and will help the film festival grow. He also envisions crowd-pleasing programs, such as showing silent films with live music.

"We're confident it will be cash flow-positive," he said.

Dietz remains as infatuated by film now as when he was a kid.

"I think it's a wonderful business and an incredible art form," he said. "Everybody can talk about a movie they love. And anybody can make a movie now."

Fueling the excitement of the Parkway project is a sign on the terra cotta and beige brick exterior, announcing its planned rebirth with the headline, "Coming soon."

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