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Searing loss of old friend


They came to the movie house, as they had so many times before, to watch a drama unfold. But this time there was no popcorn, no comfortable chair and no happy ending.

When the 60-year-old Hollywood Theater in Arbutus burned Sunday, scores of residents came to watch, many of them in tears. All week, as firefighters combed the rubble, people stood watching in disbelief, many clutching a precious memento -- scarred bricks.

The Hollywood was more than a building, they say. It was an old friend and a monument to the close-knit community.

"I feel like somebody died in my family," says Krista Lanahan, 21, who rushed home from Salisbury State University to see the devastation at the theater, where she has worked every summer since she was 17. "I still can't believe it's gone."

Arbutus hasn't changed much since the Hollywood opened on Oregon Avenue in 1935 with its huge marquee and 700 seats. In one corner was a small candy stand; the theater also had a glassed-in balcony where mothers with fidgety babies could watch a movie without bothering other patrons.

Lawyer Julian Brewer, 72, recalls walking with his family from their house on Oregon for the theater's grand opening. The feature film that night was "Show Boat," starring Laura La Plante and Joseph Schildkraut.

It was exciting enough to have a new movie house practically in your own back yard, with its candy stand and giant marquee letters. But this one offered another treat to beat the humidity of a Baltimore summer -- air conditioning.

"There was this tin house up at the top of the theater where they kept blocks of ice," Mr. Brewer says. "They would blow fans over the ice and that kept the theater cool."

As a boy, he passed out circulars for coming attractions, earning a free pass for a movie. That allowed him to to buy candy with the 15 cents that would have gone to pay admission.

When Allen T. Swann began working as an usher after school in 1940, his salary was 25 cents an hour -- pretty good for a 15-year-old Catonsville High School student who also worked part time delivering prescriptions for the pharmacy next door.

"I would rush over every day after school and change into my uniform," says Mr. Swann, 70. "It gave me money to take the girls out to the diner on the corner for sandwiches."

Last Sunday, Mr. Swann saw wisps of smoke coming from the roof of the theater and called 911 before grabbing his camera and rushing to the scene. Mr. Swann, a retired firefighter, instinctively knew the fire was a bad one.

"It was like a bomb," he says. "[The fire] was gasping for breath, and as soon as that oxygen hit it, it sucked it up and was out of control."

Many firefighters on the scene found it difficult to battle the fire -- not because it was a three-alarm blaze, but because they were hometown boys who had grown up with the theater.

"It was so hard to watch," says Battalion Chief Mark Hubbard, who grew up in Arbutus and was among the first on the scene. "This was not just another fire, this was the centerpiece of the community."

Destroyed were the old movie posters, some of them autographed, that dotted the entrance. Lost was an ancient candy machine that still contained boxes of Lemon Heads and Jawbreakers for 10 cents. Two buildings connected to the theater, the old pharmacy, which has become a dollar store, and Paul's Restaurant, a 50-year-old landmark, also were damaged severely.

Several years ago, the Hollywood was divided into two sections with a total of 500 seats. One side usually featured a children's movie; the other had a film for adults. Admission ranged from $1 to $2.50.

Generations of Arbutus residents came to the Hollywood to be transported into a world of make-believe. Adolescent boys learned how to sneak into the movies for free, and some girls got their first kiss in the theater.

Denise Moran, 31, had her first date at the Hollywood when a young man named Steve took her to see "Rocky." Sixteen years and two daughters later, the now-married couple still came to the theater for "dates."

Scott Cohen, president of film for the R/C Theaters chain, which bought the Hollywood in the late 1960s, says the company hasn't decided whether to rebuild but is "optimistic." If it does happen, Mr. Cohen says, the driving force behind the reconstruction will be the community.

Among those behind any reconstruction are people like Heather Bruno. The 10-year-old was supposed to go with her father to the theater the night it burned to see "Pocahontas."

Now she wants to help rebuild her favorite cinema. She and some classmates at Arbutus Elementary School have made posters urging people to give money to help restore the theater.

The posters "say, 'Give your pennies to help rebuild the Hollywood,' " Heather says shyly. "We want it back."

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