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George Arendt, right, senior project manager of Southway Builders, describes the condition of the original plaster work inside the historic Parkway Theatre.
George Arendt, right, senior project manager of Southway Builders, describes the condition of the original plaster work inside the historic Parkway Theatre. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun)

The death Monday of Robert Osborne, the Turner Classic Movies host, came days before I toured the soon-to-be-completed renovation of North Avenue's Parkway Theatre.

Due to reopen this spring, this 1915 movie house reminded me of many of the films that Osborne previewed, movies that had played at the theater decades ago.

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The Parkway's heritage stretches from early flickering silent films through the 1970s, when Federico Fellini's works landed here. Its heyday came in what could be called the Osborne era of classic films made just before and just after World War II. And despite the Parkways's small stage, it also managed two seasons of live theater headlined by some of Hollywood's greats.

Although financed and built by Baltimore interests, the Parkway caught the eye of the powerful Loew's Theatres chain in the 1920s, which financed and made Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer films. They bought it, along with Lexington Street's Century and Valencia, two revered film houses taken down in 1962 to make way for the Charles Center.

The Parkway offered a repertoire of MGM hits, as well as the duds, at prices lower than the downtown houses.

The Parkway showcased MGM's big stars — Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford and Robert Taylor. Bookings tended to be more uptown and highbrow, with fewer Westerns and thrillers.

In 1931, when British playwright Noel Coward's "Private Lives," starring Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery, arrived in Baltimore, it was a natural for the Parkway. A year earlier Maurice Chevalier filled its orchestra and balcony with "Playboy of Paris."

Another classic film was "Gone with the Wind," originally released in 1939, which kept coming back. A Baltimore Sun article on Feb. 23, 1941, noted, "At the close of its second engagement at the Parkway yesterday,the film registered close to 450,000 admissions for this city alone."

Also shown at the Parkway was 1934's "The Thin Man," starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. It was based on a crime novel by Maryland-born Dashiell Hammett, who once worked as a Pinkerton detective based in the still-standing Continental Trust Building at the southeast corner of Calvert and Baltimore streets.

The Supreme Court got after the entertainment industry for owning the real estate as well as the product presented. Loew's sold the Parkway to local theater mogul Morris A. Mechanic, who initially announced he would close the place and make it into an office building.

A 1952 article in The Sun lamented the loss of "one of the oldest motion-picture houses in Baltimore" and recalled its opening in October 1915. That night, its exterior cornice lights and marquee radiated along what "is fast becoming a nightly recreation center for the residents of the northern part of the city."

The Parkway proved itself a survivor.

Don Swann Jr., a local live theater producer, worked out a lease. Beginning in 1953, he brought in the actors who had previously appeared on the Parkway's screen. Billie Burke, Glinda the Good Witch in 1939's "The Wizard of Oz," returned in person on the Parkway stage in "Life with Mother." Other Hollywood veterans, including ZaSu Pitts, Edward Everett Horton, Charles Coburn (in "You Can't Take it with You") and Magda Gabor (in "Pajama Tops"), walked the Parkway's tiny stage. Basil Rathbone, who appeared in films as Sherlock Holmes, played the Parkway in "The Winslow Boy."

The Parkway's life as a live theater was short. It failed to attract sufficient patronage. Another owner put films back on its screen and made it into a 1960s-style art house with a repertoire of foreign films. It worked well enough until the 1970s, when its doors closed for nearly four decades, and rain from a leaky roof damaged its delicate plaster work.

And now, a new Parkway arrives in time for the annual Maryland Film Festival this spring.

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