Today, film lovers have an almost limitless number of options in which to catch their favorite films, from DVDs and Blu-rays to streaming their favorites directly onto their cellphones.
But 81 years ago, movie buffs in Westminster had just a single place to go to watch their favorite stars on the flicker of the big screen — the State Theatre.
Just a few years after the State Theatre started, however, a competitor opened up just a block down the road — a theater that would outlive the State by decades and continue to be an iconic part of the downtown landscape. And that was the Carroll Theatre.
Today known as the Carroll Arts Center, the Carroll Theatre first opened its doors to the public on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 25, 1937.
When the theater first opened, the Times reported on the building’s yellow tile brick finish, marble-style lobby, “salmon-rose” seats and “beautiful” curtains and cyclorama, calling the projection room “one of the most modern in the state” with “every up-to-date appliance for correct projection and sound.”
A full-page advertisement for the theater in the back of the same issue was even more magnanimous with its praise for the theater:
“To assure you the fullest enjoyment of the magnificent array of glorious pictures we have booked for you, we have the latest type of Victor Magic Voice Sound Equipment. This same system is used in the world’s largest theater, Radio City Music Hall, in New York City. The finest and most modern equipment in our projection room will flash your favorite pictures on the screen.”
During the theater’s first Friday, it ran “The Barrier,” an adventure story set in Alaska where a young woman has to escape from her murderous father who tracked her down. Other films included “Hold ’Em Navy” where Lew Ayres and John Howard fight over Mary Carlisle; “Ebb-Tide,” based on the Robert Louis Stevenson novel; “Stella Dallas” with Barbara Stanwyck; and the Western “Texas Trail” with William Boyd.
Tickets during the theater’s initial year were 25 cents for adults and 15 cents for children, with matinees running 15 cents and a dime each day. New films cycled through the box office every day, but surprisingly few of the most famous films from the late 1930s ever played at the Carroll Theatre during its opening year, with “You Can’t Take It with You,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Bringing Up Baby” and “The Lady Vanishes” all skipping the theater entirely.
In their place were films like “Night Spot” starring Parkyakarkus, the pseudonym for comedian Harry Einstein who made his career on the comedic styling of the Greek dialect; “Love, Honor and Behave,” a drama about a meek man who decides to stand up to his overbearing and beautiful wife; and “Valley of the Giants,” a third remake of a film about a battle for land in the redwood forests of California.
A night at the movies in the 1930s was not quite what the experience is today. Instead of a solid 30 minutes of commercials before another 20 minutes of trailers, audiences then were given short films, newsreels, travelogues, movie quiz pictures and updates on the world of music all projected before their feature film. Parents were encouraged to drop their kids off for Saturday matinees, which paired family-friendly films with “The Three Stooges” shorts, adventure serials like “Zorro” and “The Fighting Devil Cats,” and cartoons like “Popeye” and “Krazy Kat,” all topped off with the promise of candy favors and all for a dime. By the end of the first year, the “Saturday Morning Cartoon Show” was discontinued but the adventure serials and shorts continued before the feature films.
The Carroll Theatre lasted just more than 50 years, closing in 1988 in the face of competition from the multiple screens opened at the newly created Cranberry Mall. By then, the theater had been taken over by the R/C Theatres chain, which also operated screens in Eldersburg, at the time, charging $4.50 a ticket. In a story titled “Carroll to get more choices at the movies” in a Dec. 28, 1987, edition of the Carroll County Times, R/C President Scott Cohen said he wasn’t worried about the competition of additional screens in Westminster
“It’s survival of the best. I’m not going to say we’re better than anybody else but we’re offering a good product,” he was quoted as saying.
The theater was given second life when it reopened as the Carroll Arts Center in April 2003. In the interim, the Church of the Open Door used the space for church productions and extra space. According to Sandy Oxx, executive director of the Carroll County Arts Council, it was the city of Westminster that reached out to them to purchase the space.
“We didn’t come to the city begging for a space. They came to us saying the Church of the Open Door is selling the space, do you want to go in on it with us?” Oxx said. “The timing was perfect. We had just started looking for a space of our own. The stars just aligned for this place in so many ways.”
Much of the original design was restored on the theater’s exterior and lobby, while the initial seat count was reduced from 850 to 263 in order to make room for galleries, classrooms and more.
On Saturday, Nov. 25, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the theater, the council is hosting a free screening of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” a film also released in 1937, though, like many classics of the era, never played there in its initial run. A further celebration of the anniversary will be held on Wednesday, Nov. 29, as the center hosts a book signing and lecture by photographer Amy Davis as she walks audiences through her book, “Flickering Treasures: Rediscovering Baltimore’s Forgotten Movie Theaters.”