Palacial theaters


MOTION PICTURE theaters have changed along with the movie business and the way we see movies. Compared to the movie theaters of the 1930s, '40s and '50s, today's theaters are unadorned, with straighter, cleaner lines. They have wall-to-wall screens and very little interior lighting -- by design. We attend movies in shopping-center "cineplexes," as Thomas Cripps noted in his review here yesterday of "Seeing Through Movies": "We settle into our seats surrounded by walls so thin that we pick up the crack of Indiana Jones' whip next door while we are watching 'Mystic Pizza.'"

Gone for the most part are the elegant (and sometimes overdone) rococo, art deco and gingerbread that made up the motion picture theaters in Baltimore's yesterday.

Robert Rappaport, whose family once owned the Hippodrome, explains what happened. "In the 1940s and the '50s, a movie theater was thought to be part of the Hollywood dream. It put you into another world, fanciful and unreal -- different from the world outside. That's why those old movie theaters were often referred to as 'palaces.' They used the word because it helped define the storybook role of the movie theater in the lives of the patrons. Today, movie theaters are built for the business of insuring a comfortable viewing of the movie itself."

Those movie palaces Rappaport talks about were not only downtown, but in the neighborhoods. Marian Marcus, whose family once owned the Brooklyn in Southeast Baltimore, recalls, "There were fine tapestries on the walls, thick carpets on the floors and richly detailed wall treatments, using paneling, muted lighting and wall coverings. Even for a neighborhood theater, the decor was elegant."

One of the more dramatic examples of the splendor of Baltimore's movie theaters was the Stanley at Howard and Centre streets. When the wreckers tore down the place, Susan Garten made it a point to salvage some of its artifacts. Among her souvenirs: the massive brass railings that led up the stairwell to the second-floor balcony seating; the ornate, finely worked wrought iron trim around the entrance to the mezzanine; immense chandeliers of crystal and green enamel; huge slabs of marble that adorned the walls.

William Goodman remembers the Ideal in Hampden. (His family owned and operated it.) "The decor? It was gorgeous! We had beautiful tapestries on the walls, heavy draperies on either side of the screen. The richness of the decor made going to the movies more fun."

Probably the best example of the Baltimore movie palaces of yesterday was the Valencia. It was on the second floor of the Century -- in the lost block of Lexington Street between Charles and Liberty that is no more. Its ceiling was made to stimulate a night sky, with twinkling stars (lights blinking) and billowing clouds moving silently across the sky. The effect was wondrous. You sat in soft light in a fairyland, watching a fairy tale of a movie.

Not all of the palaces are gone, we're happy to say. There's the splendid Senator, an art deco showplace on York Road in Govans. With its curved, glass-bricked facade lighted from behind by yellow, green and pink neon; its oval foyer with terrazzo floor; its comfortable seating; its 35-foot auditorium ceiling; its organ and the real butter on its popcorn, the Senator is appropriately on the National Register of Historic Places.

It is a sign of the times that Thomas A. Kiefaber, grandson of the theater's builder in 1939, has to remind 1990s audiences that the movie they're about to see is not a rented video and that loud comments, therefore, are inappropriate.

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