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Maryland Film Festival debuts a renovated Parkway theater that stays true to its 102-year history

Wednesday night, with the opening of the 19th Maryland Film Festival, the Parkway will come flickering back to life. Renamed the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway, after the Athens- and New York-based philanthropic organization that provided $5 million toward its $18.2 million renovation, the reinvigorated movie palace will serve as a permanent home for the festival.

Wiping away 102 years' worth of dirt, wear, crumbling plaster and the shards of misuse from the Parkway theater was never going to be easy. And to the credit of those running the Maryland Film Festival, they opted against even trying.

"When we walked into the building a few years back — 100 years old, most of its life [spent] as a movie theater, under multiple owners — the intrinsic beauty of the place was just overwhelming," says festival director Jed Dietz, the guiding force behind the reclamation project that turned the Parkway from a building abandoned for decades to Baltimore's newest movie theater and a crown jewel of the Station North Arts District.

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Wednesday night, with the opening of the 19th Maryland Film Festival, the Parkway will come flickering back to life. Renamed the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway, after the Athens- and New York-based philanthropic organization that provided $5 million toward its $18.2 million renovation, the reinvigorated movie palace will serve as a permanent home for the festival. As such, it will provide not only a location for the annual cinematic celebration, but a year-round venue for smaller-budget, nonstudio movies that previously would not have been shown in Baltimore.

The Parkway Theatre is reopening after being vacant for more than 30 years. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun)

Dietz welcomes the idea of a theater that encompasses, and celebrates, the history of the art form. When the Parkway opened in 1915, the cinema was still an infant; Charlie Chaplin was only a year into his career as The Little Tramp; the Warner Bros. studio had yet to be founded; and Rudolph Valentino was literally dancing for dollars in New York restaurants and clubs.

The vast majority of the history of the movies has played out over the Parkway's lifespan. Dietz can't help but smile when he thinks about it.

"The idea of capturing that feeling for everybody who came in," he says, with the Parkway's grand reopening less than a week away, "seemed like the right way to go."

To that end, Dietz and the board that runs the MdFF decided on a renovation project like few others. Sure, they told their contractors, stabilize the building, modernize the wiring and the plumbing and the amenities, make it hospitable for today's audiences.

But also let the building show its age. Seal the peeled paint and crumbled plaster so it peels and crumbles no more, but don't hide it. Let visitors see evidence of the building's various iterations over the years, from when it opened as the city's newest movie palace in 1915; to when it was acquired by Loew's in the 1920s (and wired for sound in 1928); to its brief stint as a live theater run by Morris Mechanic in the 1950s; to its two decades as the 5 West, one of the city's premier arthouses, until it went dark — seemingly for good — in 1978.

Emmy-winning casting director Pat Moran, an original member of John Waters' crew, was a frequent visitor to the 5 West back in the day; if she or her friends wanted to see the latest from Ingmar Bergman or Federico Fellini, chances are it was playing here.

"I'm overwhelmed by it, that's the only word I can say," says Moran while visiting the restored Parkway for the first time last week. "Not only is it remarkable in the architectural structure, what they've done, but they've also managed to keep the feeling, the soul of this movie theater."

Dietz enjoys relating how the MdFF and the Parkway first linked up. After more than a decade of being held annually at the five-screen Charles theater, the festival was starting to look for a permanent home. He had heard of the Parkway, but had no clear idea where it was. When someone suggested it could be just what the festival was looking for, he was surprised to learn the building was only two blocks directly north of the Charles.

The festival was one of several organizations that made their case to the city, which owned the property; by the fall of 2012, the Baltimore Development Corporation and then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake had approved the project. Still, hurdles remained — namely coming up with the $17 million-plus that would be needed to rehab the building.

Two years later, that fund-raising process got a shot in the arm from a most unexpected source — a philanthropic organization named for a Greek shipping magnate.

As Dietz tells it, he had been told by Johns Hopkins University President Ron Daniels that the Niarchos Foundation — whose chair sits on the Hopkins board — might be interested. So Daniels, with Hopkins already onboard as a partner in the Parkway, went to New York to see what he could do.

"I thought we might get a million [dollars], and that would be great," Dietz recalls. But when Daniels phoned from New York, the news was even better. The Niarchos Foundation had pledged $5 million.

"We're walking on air," Daniels said earlier this month, at a preview held at the Parkway for donors, civic officials and other supporters of the project. "When we first heard of the idea of trying to get a hold of this theater ... it seemed pretty fanciful. But we quickly became believers.

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"We are tremendously, tremendously optimistic about what this means for the city, and particularly what this means for the film community in this city."

By fall of 2015, all the pieces were in place to start the actual work on the building. Several structures adjacent to the Parkway, including a former drug store, White Coffee Pot restaurant, and arts space called the Chicken Box, were torn down to make way for new construction that would eventually include lounge areas and a pair of smaller, 80-seat theaters. The old seats were removed from the original Parkway, along with the massive red curtain that for decades had hung in front of the movie screen. The east wall, which for nearly a century had been buttressed by the walls of the adjoining buildings, had to be shored up to stand on its own. Water damage had to be repaired, asbestos had to be removed, new speakers and other sound equipment had to be installed.

Visitors to the Parkway will enter a building that proudly shows its age, and its scars. Fronted by a marquee that's a faithful reproduction of what was there in 1915, (restorers worked off old photographs, to replicate its appearance as closely as possible), the building's multi-layered past is quickly in evidence. The main lobby, which now includes a concession stand off on the west side, has walls with a peeling paint job that dates to various eras, depending on the color.

The main theater, which now holds 414, is dominated by a proscenium arch over the stage. Sculpted plaster figures and other designs surround it, topped by a sunburst and a jester's face at its peak that has been overseeing the theater for more than a century. On the ceiling, encircling the auditorium, are ovals that once contained canvas paintings of bucolic, pastoral scenes (two remain, in the ovals nearest to the stage).

Walking upstairs from the lobby, you pass through the former tea room, with a curved ceiling that dates to the 1920s. Step forward from the tea room toward the bathrooms, and parts of the original, even more steeply curved (and ornately carved) ceiling can be appreciated.

From the Parkway's magnificent balcony, which seats about 200, the full glory of the restored theater can best be seen. Hanging down from both sides of the stage are what look like lattice-work screens, behind which the theater's organ once pumped out sound (the original screens could not be saved; what you're seeing are actually photographs).

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Hovering over it all, hanging from a domed ceiling, is an original plaster chandelier, which once covered the building's ventilation system.

"This is all so beautiful," says Pat Moran, soaking in the decades' worth of history and culture the Parkway so dutifully reflects. "This really is a revelation."

"It's different, and I think that's the power of it," says Dietz, who sees the Parkway and its year-round programming as key in realizing the MdFF's stated mission of providing "Film for Everyone."

"There's a huge desire from audiences to learn more and more about the kinds of films that are getting made and are going through the festival circuit," he says. "This is a step we should be taking, and as it turns out, exactly at this time, and in this location."

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