Long before television and multi-screen cinemas, some of Baltimore's most popular entertainment spots were nickelodeons -- small neighborhood theaters that showcased everything from silent films to vaudeville acts around the turn of the century.
With the advent of more lavish downtown movie palaces, and streetcars that gave people a way to get to them, nickelodeons faded in popularity after World War I. Today, many people don't even know what the word means, except perhaps that it's the name of a cable TV network.
Now, the directors of the Baltimore City Life Museums are planning to introduce a new generation to the old-time charms of the nickelodeon by building one on Museum Row, just east of downtown Baltimore.
A 50-seat theater is scheduled to rise starting this summer on a vacant lot just south of the Morton K. Blaustein City Life Exhibition Center, a four-story building that will contain 30,000 square feet of exhibits about Baltimore history when it opens April 12, 1996.
The one-story nickelodeon will serve as an orientation center for the compact cluster of a half-dozen small museums bounded by Front, Lombard and Albemarle streets, and a starting point for visitors touring the Blaustein building.
Designed by Ziger/Snead Architects with Charles Brickbauer, it is the final public building planned for the East Baltimore campus, which includes the Carroll Mansion, the 1840 House, the Center for Urban Archaeology, Brewer's Park and the Courtyard Gallery.
The bulk of the construction funding has been provided by the Harvey M. and Lyn P. Meyerhoff Fund Inc., which donated $300,000 on May 31. That was the exact sum needed to qualify for a $300,000 challenge grant awarded in December 1993 by the Kresge Foundation.
"This is the gift that put us over the top of a very ambitious effort for an institution of our size," said Nancy Brennan, executive director of the museums. "Kresge gave us $300,000 and said we had to raise $1.2 million to get it, for a total of $1.5 million. This was the capping grant."
Although the museum board still needs to raise $67,000 to complete the nickelodeon, Ms. Brennan said she hopes to see construction begin this summer so the building can open in April at the same time as the adjacent Blaustein building.
Ms. Brennan said she is pleased to be able to move ahead with the nickelodeon since it will be a key to understanding the scope and layout of the expanded campus for city history.
She explained that the museum board chose the nickelodeon as theme for its orientation theater because nickelodeons -- which cost a nickel to enter -- were important in local history.
"Baltimore was full of nickelodeons from the last decade of the 19th century to the 1920s," she said. "They flourished. Some were very large and ornate. Some were very simple. They were used for vaudeville, silent films, short plays, talking dogs -- anything and everything."
The Museum Row nickelodeon will be clad in brick and stone, with a semipedimented entrance, leaded glass windows and brass scrollwork on the wood doors.
The lobby will feature an exhibit about the history of nickelodeons. In the 50-seat theater, visitors will see a 20- to 25-minute film that provides an introduction to Baltimore history and an overview of the museum campus.
"People will be reintroduced to some of the things they know best about Baltimore history -- the War of 1812, H. L. Mencken, the Bromo Seltzer tower," Ms. Brennan said.
George B. Hess, Jr., vice president of the Meyerhoff fund, said expansion of the museum complex is the kind of project the Meyerhoffs like to support for three reasons.
"First, it's an extraordinary educational facility for all the people of Baltimore," he said. "Second, as a museum, this place is preserving Baltimore for future Baltimoreans, and there is no other entity like that. Third, this is not the kind of institution that appeals to business. If foundations like the Meyerhoffs' did not help them, it would not progress."