The Charles Theater, for 14 1/2 years Baltimore's premiere art movie venue, won't be showing the Chinese film "Farewell My Concubine" this Christmas, as its schedule proclaims. Instead, it will be exhibiting a sadder reality: Farewell, my Baltimore.
The theater, which has been leased and operated by Washingtonian David Levy since June 1979, will close its doors Sunday night and remain dark for at least several weeks as its owners struggle to find new operators.
"I am hopeful that it will not be dark very long," said Alan Shecter, chief operating partner of Bowling Inc., the Baltimore real estate firm that owns the theater and much of the 1700 block of N. Charles St. "There are a couple of commercial operators in the picture -- that is, local people who would operate the theater like David Levy did.
"There's also a plan afoot to do it on a nonprofit basis. And there's even been interest from out of town," said Mr. Shecter. "But I'm leery of that. I know it needs someone who loves it and is willing to put in the hard work necessary to run it. I'm interested in a dedicated operator with capital."
Another possibility is that Loew's, the national theater chain whose aggressive booking policies at the Rotunda helped spell doom for the Charles, may take over the theater's lease. The Rotunda is a competing art house in the Roland Park area.
"We're looking at it," said Ben Ryland, regional manager of publicity for Loew's. "We don't have any other single-screen theaters, but it might work for us."
The last picture show for David Levy's management at the Charles will be a homosexual documentary that closes out the Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, called "Sex Is . . . "
"I would have closed it earlier this week," says Mr. Levy, "but I had made a commitment to the Gay & Lesbian Film Festival and the Advocate, the gay newspaper involved in the festival."
Mr. Levy has agreed to vacate a lease in mutual agreement with Mr. Shecter.
He leaves behind a debt that Mr. Shecter characterized as "substantial," but wouldn't specify "because it would be embarrassing to David and to myself." Last month it was reported that the theater hadn't paid rent for nine months.
Mr. Levy also leaves behind a shaken neighborhood.
"This is very bad news," said Battle Martin, manager of the Club Charles, a bar across the street. "We always got people in either before or after the show during the week. It would be better for everybody if it stayed open, but we'll carry on and hope that somebody picks it up."
"This is the slowest time of year," said Mr. Levy. "The dollars just weren't there to go on operating."
"Farewell My Concubine," the Chinese drama that shared the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and was slated to be the Charles' big Christmas attraction, will go unshown unless another exhibitor takes over.
"It's very sad. It's the end of an era," said John Waters, the Baltimore movie-goer who frequently used the theater for his films' premieres and patronized it steadily as a customer. "It's sacrilege. Where am I going to see a movie like 'Romper Stomper' [a violent Australian film about punk gangs]? It'll set Baltimore movie-going back 20 years.
Mr. Waters recalled, "I spent some of the best nights of my life at the Charles. I had a great world premiere of 'Polyester' there -- a wonderful night in my life. But I also get tired of hearing people whine about the Charles. I said to them, 'Put your money where your mouth is.' After [a previous story] appeared in The Sun two weeks ago, not a single extra person came. And it's happening all around the country. All that good taste!"
Tom Kiefaber, owner of the Senator, was equally discouraged. "It's painful to hear that the Charles has joined the long list of vanishing independent theaters."
While art-house hits like "Remains of the Day" and "The Piano" play at other Baltimore venues, the Charles was filling out the weeks before "Farewell My Concubine" arrived with lesser items that indicate the sorry state into which the theater's booking policies had descended. It was slated to retread "Damage" from last year and "Lolita" from 1962; then two days of the obscure "Shakes the Clown," a day of the even more obscure "Mondo New York," and then porn and quasi-porn.
Once the pre-eminent force in Baltimore art-house circles, the theater fell victim to at least two negative dynamics. First was the perception of inner-city crime, and second the lack of market clout.
Last month, Mr. Levy noted that "crime has had a big impact" on the 25 percent decline of business at the Charles over the past two years. "The block started to go downhill when the Chesapeake, a seafood restaurant, closed, and now people just won't go where they don't feel safe."
Added Mr. Ryland of the Loew's chain, "The Charles is in a bad location. If he had been a little closer to the art institutes, it might have been better."
Loew's, which moved into the Baltimore area in 1988, has been using its national buying power to move higher-profile art hits like "The Piano" into its Rotunda location, which is perceived as safer than the Charles' -- a grim block of Charles Street in the lee of the Penn Station, just a block down from North Avenue.
Farther out on York Road, the Senator has built a prosperous niche for itself showing higher-end, pictorial films -- like "Remains of the Day" -- that at one time might have gone to the Charles.
Meanwhile, the Baltimore Film Forum has announced that it will accept any unused Charles Theater coupon booklet tickets for regular Film Forum screenings.
We would like to hear your memories of the Charles Theater. To comment, call Sundial, the Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800 (268-7736 in Anne Arundel County, 836-5028 in Harford County, 848-0338 in Carroll County). Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6121 after you hear the greeting.