MICHAEL JOHNSON sat amid the paint cans and stepladders, his blue T-shirt and plaid shorts indicating he was ready for some serious work. Only the inscription he wore on his cap revealed his mission: "a celebration of black cinema."
Johnson and several other workers were busy renovating the theater formerly known as the Parkway, at the corner of North Avenue and Charles Street. As he ascended the stairs to the second level, he explained how a cadre of "family, friends and volunteers" had taken up six layers of carpet. He hung a left into what will shortly be the "Howard Rollins Theater," named for the late Baltimore actor who starred in television's "In the Heat of the Night" and the critically acclaimed film "A Soldier's Story."
"We're going to add in 75 more seats," Johnson said of the theater, which will bring the capacity to 300. The downstairs will house the Oscar Micheaux Exhibition Hall and a second exhibition hall named for another Baltimore actor -- Clarence Muse. Micheaux was a pioneer black filmmaker of the 1920s and 1930s.
"This guy was born on Fulton Avenue," Johnson said of Muse. "He was in the second talkie ever to come out. In addition, he was a lawyer and producer and wrote music with Langston Hughes, who was also a director."
Just $60,000 stands between Johnson and his dream of making the Parkway the Heritage Shadows of the Silver Screen Museum and Cinema. That would be a 180-degree, 83-year journey for the building, which opened in 1915 and was one of two Baltimore theaters to play D. W. Griffith's paean to the Ku Klux Klan, "Birth of a Nation."
Johnson and other members of the Heritage's board of directors need the money to finish the painting, plumbing and electrical work on the building. They've appealed for help, even establishing a phone-a-thon number -- 900-933-1155, which will net the Heritage $8 for every call made -- to help raise money.
Do the math. That means some 7,500 folks will have to call that number between today and Monday, which is when the phone-a-thon ends. Johnson said he is asking Baltimore's black citizens to "step up," phone in and meet the challenge. I'll go Johnson one better. Let's make this appeal multiracial. It was Baltimore's black folks who let the wrecking ball demolish the Royal Theater.
The Heritage has already received multiracial support. Tom Kiefaber, owner of the Senator Theater on York Road, is a supporter. The Parkway building is owned by Koreans and used to house the Korean Grocers Association.
"[They] have worked with us," Johnson said of the owners. "They've made it so much easier for us."
What will Heritage supporters get in return for their bucks? Is there an attraction there for movie fans who aren't black?
Well, let's see. In November, the Heritage is scheduled to honor singer-actor-director-producer Harry Belafonte with a lifetime achievement award. Belafonte is Mr. Crossover himself, attracting white fans as a calypso singer in the 1950s.
From February through March of 1999, the Heritage will feature films starring Dorothy Dandridge. There's no reason every heterosexual male within a 25-mile radius of Baltimore shouldn't have his butt glued to a Heritage seat for that month. Dorothy Dandridge? We're talking major ooh-la-la, here. Was Dandridge the black Marilyn Monroe or Monroe the white Dorothy Dandridge? The fun comes in watching film after film featuring both until we can make a decision.
For those who love to discuss controversial subjects, the short features in the Rollins Theater will be reruns of the "Amos 'n Andy" television shows. Johnson is not the first black, nor probably the last, to point out that the much-maligned series actually had some positive images of blacks. Johnson says he remembers one episode in which Kingfish and Andy mistakenly sell the clothes of a black police captain.
"We had to wait for 'Kojak' to even get a black police lieutenant," Johnson declared, adding that "Amos 'n Andy" was no more offensive than many of the black sitcoms of the '70s and '80s that followed it.
Other films will include some current ones overlooked by mainstream media, such as "Ill Gotten Gains," a story of a slave ship revolt that some folk claim is better than Steven Spielberg's "Amistad." Fans of the TV show "Homicide" will get a chance to see a very young Yaphet Kotto in 1964's "Nothing But A Man."
The Royal Theater should have become Baltimore's African-American film museum and movie house. We can make up for that failure by supporting the Heritage. And it's as easy as picking up a phone and dialing.
Pub Date: 8/26/98