Ohio theater brings memories of city's Valencia

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The search for a lost piece of Lexington Street took me to Canton, Ohio, recently.

I was seeking a facsimile of a former Baltimore landmark, the Valencia Theatre, a 1920s movie palace.

The Valencia, which was located on the upper floors of a building at 18 W. Lexington St., closed its heavy doors in 1955. It and the Century, the larger movie palace on the ground floor of the same building, were demolished in the fall of 1962 as part of the urban renewal program that brought forth Charles Center.

The razing of the old movie palaces spawned a few printed tributes.

I had read that Canton had a theater that opened within a month of the Valencia. Both theaters were designed by the same man, architect John Eberson. They were sort of cousins in the line of "atmospheric" theaters, whose auditoriums are made up like a Spanish patio or courtyard.

A friend and I drove into Canton and expected to spend half the afternoon searching for the old temple of celluloid. You begin to wonder when a building or institution achieves legendary status. Will it really be all it was cracked up to be?

After reaching Market Street in Canton, it didn't take us long to see a huge vertical sign, dotted with hundreds of electric light bulbs and similar to the Patterson's in East Baltimore. The sign said "Palace" in blazing letters.

Rod Lang, director of the Canton Palace Theatre Association, opened the landmark's door.

It was everything I had heard it was. The stage was framed by a majestic proscenium arch. The side walls wrought in intricate plaster resembled the archways I'd seen in Spain. The orchestra seats gently descended from the ornate lobby.

My friend and I took our seats in the Palace 20 minutes before the feature film went on. (The theater still shows movies but also has stage shows, concerts and religious revivals.) Some minutes later, the theater darkened. This was the part I drove to Canton to see. The theater's curved ceiling twinkled with a handful of tiny electric stars, including a good imitation of a Little Dipper. A pair of machines beamed clouds (actually cloud-like optical patterns) onto this sky. This show was a lot more interesting than the feature film, Marlon Brando and Faye Dunaway in "Don Juan de Marco."

There were glowing red lanterns on the tops of all the plaster columns and archways, and dim backlighting, too. It made the theater seem like a garden in old Castile. I bought into the atmospherics wholeheartedly.

Then organist Bob Beck serenaded the audience from the console of the mighty Kilgen pipe organ.

Somewhere between "Great Day," "Glad Rag Doll," and "It's the Talk of the Town" it dawned on me that it wasn't absolutely crazy to spend a vacation touring shrines.

I've known more than one baseball fan who made pilgrimages to ball parks large and small, old and new. People spend big money on trips to the various parts of the Disney empire. Visitors line up to tour the palaces of Europe. Why not do the same for the palaces that exhibited the products of Louis B. Mayer and his fellow West Coast potentates?

Was a trip to Canton worth it? You bet. And then some. I may have missed Lexington Street's Century and Valencia theaters, but Canton's Palace certainly educates a visitor in silent-screen Xanadus.

It is easy to get caught up in the lore of old Hollywood. Just watch Bob Dorian, the host of cable television's American Movie Classics who showcases surviving movie palaces. At least we are now recognizing these beautifully designed and decorated theaters.

After the movie ended, the Palace's organist pointed out a connection between the Baltimore and Canton theaters. On the PTC wall of the pipe chamber someone wrote, "Nov. 22, 1926, first song, "Valencia." And, on Dec. 23, 1926, when Baltimore's Valencia opened, the organist played that song too, "Valencia, a Song of Spain."

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