I've been waiting 36 years for the phone call that came this week. Valerie Berton of the Maryland Department of Planning said that North Avenue's grand, but very dilapidated, Parkway Theatre would be the recipient of a $2 million Sustainable Communities Tax Credit administered through the Maryland Historical Trust. A few weeks ago, the city sold this magnificent 1915 film house to the Maryland Film Festival for a token $1.
State officials will assemble at the Parkway, 5 W. North Ave., at 10:30 a.m. Monday to celebrate the announcement, which will help finance the planned renovations. Anyone who has never experienced the unrestored interior of this 1915 Baltimore legacy should take a look. Its doors were locked in 1977 and its projectors darkened. After that, the Parkway retreated into a kind of urban hiding.
During that time, the elaborate interior plaster work turned crumbly, but somehow the old draped curtain survived. In its present state, it is part Ritz Hotel, part Sunset Boulevard.
I fell in love with the Parkway during my post-Walt Disney years, when I graduated to what we called "the foreign films" (think Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman) of the 1960s. I enjoyed about a decade of regular visits to this film house, where I encountered a jewel box of a theater designed and constructed just as film was establishing itself in the silent era.
By the early 1970s, the Parkway's audiences were sparse, but the place retained a grandeur, the kind of style that the Hotel Belvedere and Penn Station possessed in their prerenovation days. After all, the Parkway, with its Beaux-Arts interior, was an authentic film temple. Once part of the Loews chain, it had gotten all the MGM films after their downtown run.
It also had a brief period as a live playhouse. I've heard of a legendary production of Clare Boothe Luce's "The Women," for which a lack of dressing rooms was addressed by parking a school bus in the alley behind the theater to provide extra space.
I consider it the sleeping cornerstone of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District. In the decades it's been locked up, the entertainment karma did not evaporate.
Washingtonian David Levy converted the Charles into an art film house, which was later nicely renovated and expanded by Buzz Cusack. The neighborhood also got the Club Charles and Tapas Teatro, and later, the wonderful Everyman Theatre, and still later, the highly original Single Carrot. The Chesapeake restaurant reopened, along with a Maryland Avenue newcomer, Bottega. The Shecter family, which owns property in the area, worked hard to keep the arts momentum going.
Perhaps the biggest and most substantial player in the entertainment district is the Maryland Institute College of Art, which put $20 million into the old Morgan Millwork-Jos. A. Bank building, a short distance from the Parkway. MICA, as well as the University of Baltimore and other schools, provided the neighborhood a young constituency, as evidenced by Red Emma's move to North and Maryland avenues.
Jed Dietz of the Maryland Film Festival estimates that it will take between $16 million and $18 million to restore the Parkway, add two small theaters and renovate several adjacent rowhouse-style buildings on Charles Street. It's ambitious but it is also just what this corner needs.
"People are just knocked out by the Parkway when they get inside," Dietz said. "The French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, who photographed Detroit, were through the building and took pictures."
He told me he has assembled his team, Ziger/Snead architects and Seawall Development as a construction consultant.
"There is going to be a fundraising campaign, but the Parkway is one of the earliest surviving film houses," he said. "I compare it to the old Strand in New York and theaters in London on Leicester Square."