Anthony Fykes’ proudest moment during his first year as co-owner of Next Act Cinemas in Pikesville came when he screened the movie “Harriet” for a bunch of kids from a nearby school.
Many students — giggly and boisterous, their energy pulsing through the 1937-era movie palace once known as the Pikes Theatre — didn’t know who Tubman was. Or if they did, they didn’t realize that the abolitionist, conductor on the Underground Railroad and Civil War spy had been born in Maryland.
“Getting a chance to teach students about her legacy was very, very rewarding,” Fykes said. “The opportunity to have an impact on young people is one of the major reasons we wanted to do this."
“We" refers to Fykes’ business partner, Robert Wright, and “this” is NextAct Cinemas, the independent boutique movie theater inside the much-loved Art Deco building on Reisterstown Road in Pikesville. In March, NextAct will celebrate its first anniversary.
Fykes and Wright know that running a neighborhood movie theater with 86 seats in the era of Netflix and cable television is a gamble. Despite a sinuous facade that beckons to passersby with its elegant, cream-colored bricks and contrasting black trim, several prior attempts to revive the theater have failed. During the past half century, the Pikes has been closed more days than it has been open.
Moreover, neither Fykes nor Wright has experience in the movie business — and were unable to find a bank willing to loan them the sum they’d need to renovate the interior (a six-month project). So, the dynamic duo put their own savings into the business and enlisted investors.
Though the Art Deco building itself is owned by entrepreneur Wil Reich, it was Fykes and Wright who are responsible for operating the cinema.
“We convinced ourselves that despite the risks, the community would make it work,” Fykes said. Both men are African American, and they suspect NextAct is one of just a few black-owned theater businesses in the U.S.
“There are only two other black-owned theaters that we know of,” Fykes said. “One is in Richmond and one is in Las Vegas.”
The dearth is an unintended consequence of integration, according to M.K. Asante, an associate professor of English, screenwriting and animation at Morgan State University. (A film based on his acclaimed 2013 memoir, “Buck,” currently is in production and Asante said it’s expected to be released next year.)
“There were hundreds of black-owned theaters throughout the nation between 1905 and 1950,” he said — a consequence of Jim Crow-era segregation.
In addition, Asante said, white-owned cinemas during that period also were barred from showing films targeted to a black audience unless they were screened very late at night.
”They were called ‘midnight ramblers,’” he said.
The laws overturning segregation ironically struck a death knell for black-owned businesses of all types, he said, from insurance companies to cinemas to the storied Negro League baseball. Not only were black customers finally able to patronize white-owned establishments after centuries of being excluded, many felt a responsibility to do so.
”At the time,” Asante said, “people under-estimated the impact this would have on black-owned businesses. So what Anthony and Robert are attempting to do now in Pikesville is pioneering.”
Each of NextAct’s two, 43-seat theaters features plush reclining seats. A lobby bar serves beer, wine and mixed drinks. The theater’s menu lists crab cakes, meatloaf and chicken matzo soup and other dinner entrees along with such typical concessions as popcorn and candy.
Waiters take orders seatside before the film begins, and the food is prepared in the kitchen of the attached Pikes Diner (also owned by Reich.) When the waiters return with meals, customers simply pull out trays attached to their chairs and eat while watching the movie.
Some of the films NextAct will screen will feature African American performers or themes, such as “Harriet” and the upcoming “The Banker," based on the real-life tale of two black entrepreneurs in the 1950s who devised a novel method for side-stepping discrimination.
But other movies — such as the superhero features “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” and “Captain Marvel” — are standard adventure films that make no attempt to comment on race relations.
“Our purpose was never to cater to just one demographic," Fykes said. “We just want to show good films.”
The partners met about 15 years ago when both worked for a pharmaceutical firm. They became friends and over the years, Fykes visited Wright’s home, which includes a “man cave” featuring a sophisticated home movie theater.
“People just loved coming to Rob’s home,” Fykes said. “One day he said, 'Tony, I’d really like to do this on a bigger scale. What do you think?”"
As is typical of small businesses, the division of labor at NextAct isn’t sharply defined; everyone does everything. But Fykes’ area of expertise is sales and marketing, while he described Wright (who was unavailable for comment) as an “audio nerd” with a deep knowledge and love for the technology involved in screening films.
NextAct has a staff of 13, including one full-time employee. Fykes and Wright try to hire young people from the neighborhood whenever possible.
“These are good kids,” Fykes said, “and giving them jobs gets them off the street.”
He said the partners hope that NextAct will function more as a small community center than as a traditional movie theater. In addition to showing films, he envisions the Pikes hosting jazz nights, karaoke contests and high school graduation parties.
Asante thinks that NextAct might be the first black-owned theater in Baltimore in recent memory, but it’s unlikely to be the last. He has seen a revival of interest in black-owned cinemas among the students who attend the film class he teaches every semester. Several have drawn up business models with the goal of creating their own theater business.
“I am seeing a resurgence of a ’black list’ and of people supporting black-owned businesses,” Asante said.
“People will make a 40-minute drive to support a business they believe in. When we see something like NextAct that’s curated and that focuses on the experience of watching a movie, people will support it. I think the market will only continue to grow.”
So far, so good.
On a recent bright Friday afternoon, the sun lit up the giant movie projector — the one originally installed in the Pikes in the 1930s — that’s now stationed outside and near the marquee. A steady stream of customers came through the door, and Fykes said NextAct has catered to movie lovers from as far away as Texas. A man who drove to the theater from Philadelphia told Fykes he made the trip specifically because he wanted to support a black-owned business.
“Robert and I have set an aggressive goal for ourselves,” Fykes said. “We hope the business will break even some time in 2021.”