Haunted by a bygone theater — what did it look like?


ome of my favorite haunts in old Baltimore occupied me over a recent Sunday afternoon. On the first day of the week, I was in two historic churches, St. Ignatius on North Calvert Street and St. Alphonsus on Saratoga, home of the Latin Mass and a very handsome set of newly restored 19th-century stained-glass windows. There was time for a quick run through the Walters Art Museum's Greek artifact show and the Hippodrome matinee of "Dreamgirls."

It was a cool winter day, with the flattering natural lighting from a setting sun. Ancient downtown Baltimore appeared much restored, cleaned and painted, physically in far better shape than some sketchy years in the 1990s. And as dazzling as the newer portions of Harbor East look, there is something compelling about this familiar neighborhood with its Bromo Seltzer Tower and the venerable Hutzler's and Stewart's department stores. Is it the age, the remarkable architecture, the weight and security, the quality of the old commercial city that spoke to me that day?


Here are real, permanent landmarks, grouped harmoniously by design and time. I wanted to applaud the careful restoration this corner of Baltimore has received over the past few decades. It all shines proudly.

During the intermission at the Hippodrome, I walked through its rather vast and commodious lobbies and galleries. The old Mechanic Theatre never had all this extra space or as many restrooms. And speaking of old theaters, the Hippodrome's lobby walls are generously filled with enlarged photographs of the theaters whose offerings delighted Baltimoreans over the decades. I thought of the blazing marquees, the department store windows, the drugstores that never seemed to close. And there is nothing like the detail in a fine photograph, maybe 80 years old, to pique the historic curiosity.


One of the photos in the Hippodrome's balcony stopped me in my tracks. It was of the old Century Theater, a movie palace on Lexington Street I watched be destroyed in the fall of 1962. The photo both puzzled me and haunted me.

It was the largest and best reproduction I had ever seen of a gorgeous inner sanctum, a confection in veined marble and imported walnut. I never set foot in the place but have spent the past few years trying to visualize this 3,000-seat playhouse, with all its convoluted walkways, mezzanines, balconies and galleries decorated in a gaudy Alhambra of styles.

I can only envision its secluded chambers of Versailles-like, 1920s movie-mogul pretensions. What of a murky mezzanine promenade with rows of Ionic columns? Sound exotic? You bet.

I trust the word of Baltimore theater historian Robert Headley: "The main lobby of the Century was an impressive two-story space lined with mirrors and lighted by a huge chandelier. The balcony and mezzanine lobbies were straight out of a medieval castle with gargoyles and semi-nude carvings on the walls and pillars. If the main lobby was sparkling and bright, these latter places were dim and eerie. After seeing a horror film at the Century, you wandered through the upper levels at your peril."

Over the years, I've searched the Pratt Library and assorted other archives for a floor plan of the Century to unlock the secrets of these rooms. And yet, I never resolved the mystery of the Century to my satisfaction. I am now pleading for help. Did anyone work at the Century and know its inner footprint and workings? I'd love to have my personal riddle resolved.